Political challenges, political change with Lucy Barnes
22 February 2023
Dr Lucy Barnes is an Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at UCL and co-lead for the UCL Policy Labs Rethinking Economic Policy research theme.
I first spoke with Lucy during the frantic days following the Truss mini-budget. In what seemed like an almost constantly shifting policy landscape, we were trying to provide some expert analysis of the actions taken by the new government.
The sense of turmoil and confusion within the political commentary was real. Expert surprise at the economic content of the policies went hand in hand with puzzlement as to the political motives for reforms that were deeply unpopular with voters. And so Lucy’s clear and detailed analysis was vital in providing advice to the media and other partners. This was largely due to the detailed work done by Lucy and colleagues on understanding how voters viewed the kinds of policies being introduced by Truss.
Now, months later, as we sit and chat over a coffee on campus, Lucy helps me make sense of what comes next.
“Economic policymaking has a fascinating Janus face. On the one hand, it’s a highly technical domain where can be difficult to engage voters. On the other, the past 10 to 15 years in the UK shows popular opinion can be effectively mobilized, with massive political consequences” she says. “Voters’ ideas can be appealed to and emphasised by political parties to varying degrees of success – the Conservatives’ ability to capitalize on public aversion to government borrowing after 2009 is a prime example of effective mobilization. But we need to learn from voters’ reactions to different economic policies, to understand their (often otherwise latent) preferences and priorities.”
One area central to this work is the saliency of issues. In short, understanding which issues are on voters’ minds at any given time. “Opinions don’t need to change very much for public opinion to have big political consequences. What can really be variable through time, and somewhat deliberately shaped, is the level of attention that’s given to certain issues,” she explains. “At the same time, we want to understand what is important to voters on their own terms, to have any meaningful kind of democratic responsiveness.”
Understanding the political priorities of voters is central to the work Lucy Barnes and other colleagues such as Ben Lauderdale and Jack Blumenau have done at UCL. It has also prompted Lucy to think more broadly about whose priorities get translated into policy, and the place of the academic thinking in public life and good policy-making.
“I don’t think we have a proper solution for managing a big pipeline of ideas -- representing the priorities of our diverse population – both for citizens and for academics”, she says. “How do you make good ideas rise to the top? And once they get through that funnel, how do you ensure they get communicated to the people who are making decisions of consequence?”
It’s why the work she is doing with the UCL Policy Lab is important. Not just for academics, but for the very future of our economic policy in the UK.
Speaking to Lucy Barnes reminds me that too often, policy thinking and political understanding are divorced from one another. And yet their destinies and their justifications are entwined. A budget proposal might work in economic theory, but if it isn’t rooted in an understanding of political opinion and implications for certain groups, it has no hope of becoming a successful policy. More fundamentally, voters’ views on what constitutes good policy do matter, even when understanding policy is technically difficult.
Lucy Barnes sees this as key to her work. “I understand why experts sometimes want to keep politics and public opinion off the table,” she says. “They’re messy, often conflictual, and can challenge our preconceived ideas of what policy should be.” And yet, she says it is vital to achieving impact.
“If we can collaborate across disciplines to integrate the technical and theoretical implications of policies with their political and even moral consequences, then perhaps we can avoid some of the policy failures we’ve faced here in the UK.”