Time for politicians to be straight with the voters

by Peter Watt

Real life is full of doubt and ambiguity; shades of grey dominate and we are rightly suspicious of people who peddle certainty.

But when it comes to politics it seems that certainty is still the preferred currency, or at least that is the perceived wisdom.  Politicians cannot express uncertainty, only 100% assurance, because to allow for anything else is to invite a charge of weakness and ridicule.

Much of the time we are all complicit in this nonsense.  Can you imagine if Ed Miliband, or any of the other candidates in the leadership contest, had said ‘I think I will make a good leader – but I’m not sure’?  Or if David Cameron had stood at the despatch box yesterday and after being excoriated by Ed Miliband, angrily asserted he was ‘reasonably certain’ that Ed was wrong!

Yet the truth is that most political decisions are subjective involving the weighing up of evidence and options and then making a decision that is hopefully right.  It’s not surprising that the public are increasingly sceptical about politician’s ability to tell the truth.  They just do not believe that politicians can or will deliver.

Remember how polls said that Ken’s fares policy was popular?  Well the same polls often showed that the public also did not believe that Ken could make this happen.  So for all Ken’s façade of certainty over his policy, including a promise to resign if he failed, the public were unmoved.

Politicians are caught between a rock and a hard place.  They must appear certain at all times or they will be seen as weak.  But this certainty does not mean that they are believed and in fact feeds a sense amongt voters of politicians as liars who do not, or cannot, deliver.

This dilemma came home strongly last Sunday when the chancellor and his shadow both appeared on the political shows.  George Osborne went first on the Andrew Marr show.

In a confident performance he defended the record of the government in the face of the terrible election results for the Conservatives.  He talked about his economic policies.  He acknowledged that the presentation of his budget could have been better and that the economy was not growing.  But fundamentally he was certain that the substance of the budget was right and that it was only by continuing to aggressively reduce the deficit could the economy be saved.

This was followed by a virtuoso appearance by Ed Balls on the Sunday Politics Show.  Ed was equally certain that not only was George wrong but that he, Ed, was right.  He made clear his position in the interview:

I say a job’s plan, a VAT cut, bring forward infrastructure, would actually be better over three or four years at getting the deficit down

So the two of them are both certain that they are right.  Both are certain that their answers to the complex problems besetting our economy are correct.

I suspect that the public believe neither, and with good reason.  On the same day that they gave their respective interviews the second round of the French Presidential election took place and the Greek general election.

The impact of these elections on the stability of the eurozone and the wider European economy is still playing out.  But what seems pretty clear is that no one knows what the outcome will be.  Will the stability pact breakdown before it has really started?  Will Greece be forced out of the Euro, and if so, what will be the consequences?  Will there be an easing of austerity?  Will there be more pro-growth spending and if so, will it work?  It is literally true to say that no one knows!

But despite this, apparently both George and Ed know with certainty what is best.

So once again we have the bizarre situation where politicians pretend that they are certain about something when the public knows that they cannot in fact be certain.  The public know that solving the economic problems is not something that either George or Ed can do singlehandedly.

And whilst they might prefer one over the other, that doesn’t mean that they believe that either is wholly right.  And George and Ed secretly agree with the public but they can’t say so even though admitting it is all complicated and quite uncertain would be a lot more honest!

It seems to me that this whole ‘I am certain/we are certain’ model of politics must be challenged.  The age of deference is well and truly over and the internet and social media have opened up politicians to more and more scrutiny.

Absolute certainty feels increasingly old fashioned.  Voters have become more sophisticated in their political consumption and I would suspect that they can probably cope with a degree of nuance from their politicians.

Perhaps now is the time for politicians to start admitting that generally speaking they can’t be certain of very much?  So for instance, Ed Balls could have said:

There is so much economic uncertainty at the moment and no one can say that they have all the answers.  But I say a job’s plan, a VAT cut, bring forward infrastructure, is likely to be better over three or four years at getting the deficit down.

It feels more honest because it is more honest.  It might however take some getting used to by fellow politicians, the media and the voters.

The public, for instance, may not actually believe what they are being promised but probably generally prefer politicians who give the appearance of being certain.  But over time a humbler more honest approach to issues that people know are complex could be a part of the process of rebuilding trust between politicians and voters.

Or we could of course just keep pretending that politicians have all of the answers and that the voters believe them.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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15 Responses to “Time for politicians to be straight with the voters”

  1. Nick says:

    OK. Start by being honest.

    What is the true government debt?

    We know the borrowing part because that can’t be hidden.

    However, your hidding, and lying about

    the state pension
    the state second pension
    civil service pensions
    nuclear decommissioning

    These are the really big debts.

    Now my prediction is that you won’t tell us. If you told us people will work out what their share is and quickly work out that you’re going to default.

    If people know that they won’t get their pension, they will turn round and say, we’re not paying into a ponzi. It will collapse sooner, rather than in a few years.

  2. Felix says:

    Peter Watt isn’t a member of the government, Nick, and that I swear is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  3. Rallan says:

    It’s too late. The behaviour is too ingrained and deceit is now simply assumed. There have been too many lies, too much bullsh*t, everywhere at every level in every politicised body.

    For example, everyone knew that exam results had been getting easier. No-one believed that kids had been getting smarter year on year for over a decade. Yet all politicians, and all teachers, and teacher unions – in fact EVERY ONE IN “AUTHORITY” – maintained this blatant untruth for YEARS to a public which absolutely KNEW it was being lied to.

    Likewise we all know that the true financial crisis is being disguised. Our politicians cannot be trusted to be responsible. Everyone knows that pensions won’t be affordable, and likewise the NHS. The maths is totally clear; it’s bloody obvious except to the most blinkered idealists. We know that the politicians are lying and concealing. We know the promises are worth nothing, and that they will all jump onto the political-club retirement gravy train long before they are called to account (if they ever are!).

    In any event, they wont even try. The next opportunity for a cheap, meaningless, non-constructive, point-scoring publicity stunt to please “core” political support will prove too tempting. Live by tribal spin, die by tribal spin.

    The main parties cannot change, and will not be believed in any event. Something new is called for.

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    I actually think Ed Miliband does this already – and is often accused of weakness because of it!

  5. Mike Homfray says:

    I actually think Ed Miliband does this already – and is often accused of weakness because of it! I do think that politicians who have an element of ‘reality’ about them are often preferred to the more polished variety.

  6. Jane says:

    I agree. The economy is an excellent reflection of untruths. It is OK to say that your informed opinion suggests a certain course but stupid to say that you are right and everyone else wrong. One only has to look at groups of economists all giving different advice. Ed Balls needs to be very careful as he rubbishes anyone in a disapraging manner who does not agree with him. Strength of character is not always admired – much better to acknowledge doubt. I do not know why politicians think that they must always give a definitive answer and to always be in control. This is not possible – we have all read about politicians asking colleagues what lobby to go into when voting on issues that they have not understood. We despair of politicians who comment on issues that they do not fully understand. We, the public often have greater knowledge of particular areas and we are left bemused by ill informed comment. That is why politicians are often held in such low esteem.

    As long as politicians continue treating the electorate as imbeciles – this will be reciprocated. We know that we cannot afford pensions unless contributions are increased and we work longer. We know that our education system is failing and that we have a developing underclass without skills. We know that our immigration policies are a disgrace. We know that the EU is an expensive project. We know that Social Care is unaffordable and that reports on the issue has been shelved. We know that despite huge NHS budgets little has been achieved in many parts of the country. We know that we have far too many MPs particularly in the devolved administrations. We know that many MPs do not work very hard – look at the list of members interests. We know that we spend too much on supporting political parties – all hidden too. £11m to the opposition party is state funding in my opinion. MPs can no longer hide from the public as we have access to so much information. Thankfully, the new intake are much more open which gives some hope for the future.

  7. Chris says:


    “I agree.”

    It is interesting and rather amusing that while agreeing with Watt’s comments wrt to politicians in one paragraph you launch into a highly subjective and in some cases provably wrong laundry list of absolutes in the next. Perhaps you should take Watt’s advice and apply it to your own comments.

  8. BenM says:

    Going back to an article of Peter’s from 18 months ago or so – which I can’t be bothered to find right now – I wonder which Party or Parties he now thinks is being “defined by the cuts”?

    I wonder if Peter has had chance to mull over just how wrong he was about that?

  9. Anon E Mouse says:


    Even you’re doing it now. WHAT CUTS???

    This government is borrowing more than the last one. There are NO cuts anymore than Thatcher cut public spending in her first term:

    1978-9 (last Labour year) £71.2 billion
    1980-81 (first full Cons year) £120.2 billion
    1981-82 £130 billion
    1983-4 £137.5 billion

    Of course faced with facts I’m sure you’ll just disappear as usual only to reappear sting more “facts” that you know aren’t accurate…..

  10. BenM says:


    The cuts to departmental spending last year – first time departmental spend had FALLEN since 1955.

    Those cuts.

    Of course Tories love to aggregate the effects of their massive economic failure into their comparatives – that is increased welfare spending thanks to higher unemployment – but sensible people stick to comparing apples with apples.

    And with 80 odd per cent of cuts to come, things are going to get worse not better.

    Expansionary fiscal contraction = voodoo economics. Yet again.

  11. Anon E Mouse says:


    Are you serious FFS?

    This government is borrowing more than the last one which means there are no cuts.

    Are Labour activists really so crazy that they think we will believe them.

    You know BenM that we know what you are saying isn’t true so why keep saying it?

  12. Rallan says:

    “You know BenM that we know what you are saying isn’t true so why keep saying it?”

    Bullsh*t has saturated our society. There is no longer any intention of having an informed debate. It’s just a manipulative contest to see which blatant fallacy (choose between Red, Blue, Yellow or Green) can be made into publicly accepted fact. Nothing more than a cynical game played by our “betters”. Orwell would be proud.

    People like BenM choose to believe things that they know to be false. And they think doing so is “right”, because it supports their view of the world. It is very tempting; I’m on the Tory side and I find myself actually wanting to believe their flavour of obvious bullsh*t for exactly the same reason. I’m ashamed of that, and I try to be (somewhat) objective.

    We’re being played off against each other with ever more divisive tribal gossipy crap, by “leaders” who don’t care very much what we think or want.

  13. BenM says:


    It is a fact departmental spend FELL 0.1% last fiscal year.

    But Osborne has to pay for the crisis he’s making worse (higher welfare spend) with less tax revenue than forecast (no growth and double dip recession).

    Hence higher borrowing requirement.

    Exactly the outcome predicted by everyone outside the hysterical-about-debt Right.

  14. Rallan says:

    Its a bit late for me to add to this topic, but I just read the following:

    “Do you know that for decades we have been ruled by two parties that have been disagreeing in everything but the continuous rise of their salaries, their financing and the protection of each other’s back in order for their crimes not to be unveiled or punished? We are down-stop kicking!”

    This was posted today by a Greek talking about their own political system. But it sums up the state of democracy across the western world.

  15. Anon E Mouse says:


    This government is borrowing more than the last one.

    Fiddle with statistics as much as you want, make as many reasons up to try to convince me day is night but you are simply wrong.

    You did the same about Gordon Brown and how great he was as well as I remember….

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