Voters say they want politicians who are straight-forward and honest with them, writes Rosie Carter. But that doesn’t mean they’ll like what they hear.
Ask voters what they want from a political leader and no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, they’ll often tell you the same thing. That they want someone honest who shows conviction, strength and integrity. They want politicians to be representative, but also accessible, to tell it how it is.
And so in the face of eroding political trust, frustration about Brexit, and growing polarisation, we see the rise of the ‘straight talker’. Jeremy Corbyn ran his leadership content under the slogan ‘straight-talking, honest politics’, unapologetically laying out his socialist agenda. Boris Johnson’s bullishness to ‘Get Brexit done’ may have proved unsuccessful so far, but have clearly laid out his commitments.
But the politician most associated with straight-talking takes a slightly different approach. Nigel Farage’s latest statement that Britain should not apologise for its colonial past is just another example of him attempting to deliver ‘straight talk’ by pushing the boundaries of ‘P.C. culture’. His attempt to skirt the edges of acceptability is a deliberate device to appeal to those struggling to keep up with social norms, to ‘tell it how it is’.
In our poll from May 2019 of 1,705 people, 23% most associated Nigel Farage with being ‘plain speaking’, something that went up to 55% for those who intended to vote for the Brexit party in the European election. For Brexit party voters, this was trait most associated with Farage, followed by ‘pro-Britain’.
It was this idea of Farage as a straight talker that fed the perception among 80% of those intending to vote for the Brexit party to say they saw Farage as a strong leader. In focus groups we ran ahead of this election, people often said how they liked how Farage’s approach. Some saw this as a refreshing take that set him apart from other politicians they saw to be disingenuous or careerist:
“Some things he goes on about, I don’t like. But he’s got the balls to say what he thinks, and he’s really proud isn’t he, he’s really patriotic, you know what you’re getting and you’ve got to respect that.” Labour Leave voter, Pontefract
This played on a broader grievance we often heard, that people did not always feel they could say what they really thought. In our latest Fear and Hope study, 52% of people agreed with the statement, “you cannot be proud of your national identity these days without being called racist”. Just 27% disagreed.
The idea that ‘you can’t really say what you really think’ looks to social norms of acceptability rather than a democratic right to freedom of expression. But it also raises the obvious question of what it is people really think that they are unable to say, or how they want to express their patriotism.
Our research has consistently shown that the roots of this run deeper, that those who feel people who feel this way are often articulating this alongside a broader sense of loss. Lost industry and changing work, local decline, alongside changing neighbourhoods and increased diversity means that identity issues and people’s standard of living become intertwined. A feeling of misrepresentation and voicelessness can find resonance in anti-elite narratives of ‘P.C. suppression’, rules that aren’t working for you, that you weren’t involved in making.
Nigel Farage is well attuned to these concerns, and it was not a surprise that his concluding statement in last night’s ITV Election Debate referenced this twice. He started off saying that the debate was “a competition to see who can be the most politically correct” before calling for “some fresh, strong non-P.C. voices” in the Commons.
Farage’s ability to get his message across, flirting on the edges of acceptability with his trademark pint in hand, offering simple answers to very complex problems, makes him the archetypal straight talker. Nevertheless, you can think that someone is a straight talker without actually agreeing with what they’re saying.
Alongside people who liked Farage’s pub-chat approach, we heard many more people who didn’t feel that this would deliver for them, or that he’d crossed the line:
“I can’t see myself and Nigel getting on at all. Yeah, he’s done some things about Brexit, but on a serious note, no, he takes things too far”. Labour Leave voter, Erdington
Farage has made it clear that he wants to start talking about immigration, even more than usual. He knows that his straight-talking on these issues appeals to his core audience. But with an aim to reach those beyond his loyal pool, especially to Labour Leave voters who don’t see Brexit or immigration as their most important cause, his approach to straight-talking might well limit his appeal.