Politics should be about fear, not hope

Britain's baroque system of honours rarely decorates the kind of punter to whom Mr Lynton Crosby, the political strategist, has devoted his life's work. The system assumes that a charity grandee or municipal executive necessarily serves their community better than the proprietor of a printing firm in a Bracknell business park who employs 12 locals.

The wonder is not that Mr Crosby might receive a knighthood in the new year, at the recommendation of Mr David Cameron, the prime minister he served so well, but that he would care for one. If steering a Conservative election campaign that was universally panned until the night of the result did not bring its own reward, then scrambling the egos of a puffed-up commentariat surely did.

The best case for knighting the Australian is to stick up for a style of politics that is slandered too often. Mr Crosby specialises in what his simpering victims call the "politics of fear". This seems to be code for identifying what voters care about - sometimes crime, sometimes immigration, almost always the economy - and pitching your candidate as the safe bet on those subjects. He cannot make people fear anything they do not already fear, but merely for taking their existing fears seriously instead of plying them with "positive ideas" and "optimistic visions", political romantics reserve for Mr Crosby their bitterest distaste.

Our distaste should be saved for the opposing kind of politician - those who propose drastic change while shirking the burden of showing that it is safe.

The lesson of 2015 was the lesson of 2014, the year that "Project Fear" saw off Scottish independence. It will also be the lesson of 2016, when a dry, technical campaign against Brexit wins zero friends but a plurality of votes in the probable referendum. Negativity works.

Function, though, can never be all. Playing on people's fears is not just effective, it is also right. Fear is a respectable emotion that is hard-wired into us as a design feature, not a glitch. We are meant to feel it. We fear heights and enclosed spaces because they really have the potential to harm us. Out of the same sense of prudence, we feel nervous when politicians talk up a new egalitarian economy or the break-up of the United Kingdom or a freer life outside the European Union.

That some of our fears are misplaced does not make the emotion unsound, or electoral appeals to it somehow sordid.

Our distaste should be saved for the opposing kind of politician - those who propose drastic change while shirking the burden of showing that it is safe: Labour's previous leader, Mr Ed Miliband, who longed to replace Anglo-Protestant capitalism with, well, something nicer; the Scottish Nationalist Alex Salmond with his haziness on little matters such as the currency; the eurosceptics who ask us to take their word that Britain could negotiate a better deal outside the EU than Switzerland or Norway. These people are more contemptuous of the average voter than Mr Crosby on his worst day.

The politics of hope has a spurious respectability but reeks of snake oil. It elides good intentions with good outcomes and treats the status quo as a baseline that can only be improved on. For normal people in the actual world, the status quo is superior to many plausible alternatives. Things can be made worse not just better by well-meaning politicians.

"The last time they met a punter," said Mr Crosby of his critics after May's general election, "was when they picked up their dry cleaning." Those who disdain the element of fear (Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a topical example) tend to do so from a great height, as if there is something below-stairs about worrying for one's safety or job when there are so many big ideas to be moved by and noble crusades to join.

They also conflate fearful politics with extremism. It is truer to say that fear (of social change, wage competition, outsiders) is what propels fringe parties; fear (of incompetent government) is what ultimately stops them being trusted with power.

Mr Crosby did not win the general election for Mr Cameron. He brought organisational shape and analytic rigour to a candidate who, given the competition, should have won anyway.

This foreigner, however, reads our country better than most native pundits. Too many have what the French called déformation professionelle, the tendency of those immersed in one line of work to see everything through that lens. Because they are passionate about politics, they believe voters are too, or can be if inspired.

Mr Crosby knows we are passionate about securing what we have worked for. We respond to cold, instrumental politics because it takes us seriously.

The typical Briton is precarious: an interest rate rise at the wrong moment or the deterioration of their local school can wound them irrecoverably. You do not need to have a lot to fear losing it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Politics should be about fear, not hope'. Print Edition | Subscribe