Freefall: how a year of chaos has undermined trust in politics
The last few weeks have seen profound political turmoil dominate our national debate. So bad has our plight become that The Economist magazine recently coined the term “Britaly”, a comparison to notoriously unstable Italy, to describe our dysfunctional politics.
Following Liz Truss’s ill judged ‘mini budget’, the Conservatives scrambled to calm the markets and assemble a stable and functioning government – resulting in our third prime minister this year. This came on the back of a year in which scandal and sleaze brought down Truss’s predecessor, Boris Johnson.
These political ruptures are not just temporary distractions. They are having a profound and lasting impact on our politics. New polling by YouGov for IPPR shows that trust in politicians is at an all-time low. A shocking two in three voters now say that politicians are “out for themselves” rather than serving “the interests of the country”.
Even more concerning than the level of trust is the pace of change. IPPR asked the same question 18 months ago. Since then, trust in politicians has fallen by 9 percentage points – likely because of ‘the year of chaos’ in British politics. For comparison, it took around 7 years for the previous fall of a similar scale and 42 years for the one before that.
Put simply: trust in British politics is in freefall.
Furthermore, our polling shows that this sentiment is widespread. There are no significant differences between the level of distrust between leave (68 per cent) and remain (67 per cent) voters, Conservative (64 per cent) or Labour (69 per cent), London (60 per cent), the North (69 per cent) or Scotland (70 per cent), or middle class (65 per cent) or working class (66 per cent). Distrust in politicians is a rare thing in our fractured society: a universal consensus.
No easy fixes
The Conservative Party’s solution to this problem is simple: a new leader at the top of government to bring stability to the party and, in turn, the country. However, whilst this has helped to stabilise the economic crisis caused by the budget, just changing the person at the top will not solve our political malaise.
This isn’t a party-political point. Whilst, a general election, called for by the opposition and now supported by a majority of voters, would help address the current ‘legitimacy gap’ in Westminster (this is the second prime minister in a row without a personal mandate from the country), a change in the governing party wouldn’t automatically solve our problems either.
This is because all the evidence is clear that whilst the debacle of the last few years has damaged trust in our politics, this is in fact an exacerbation of a much longer standing trend. In 1944 only one in three voters said politicians were “out for themselves” compared to two in three today.
This is profoundly concerning. Firstly, declining trust is linked to wider democratic decline including lower voter turnout (especially amongst already under-represented groups), political polarisation and the rise of populist challenger parties.
Secondly, lower trust in politics can feed through to less effective – and, less progressive - government. This is because policy makers find it harder to find a consensus on the key issues of the day and struggle with legitimacy in using the powers of the state.
Addressing this crisis is therefore vital for the health of our society. The question facing our leaders is how to reverse the trend? Sadly, there is no magic bullet. Trust in politics is quickly lost, but hard to rebuild. However, our research at IPPR is clear that the answer lies into two big shifts.
Road to renewal
The first is ensuring that we are closing the gap between the lives people expect to lead and the lives they are experiencing. For too long, our economic and political system in the UK has not delivered what citizens need and want. We see this in an economy characterised stagnant living standards, poor public service outcomes and growing inequality of income and wealth
If people feel that their lives are getting worse and that their experiences of the state - like their access to the NHS or the quality of their schools - are poor, they trust politics less. In the current context, under either party, this means protecting people from the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and dealing with creaking public services.
But over time we will need to go further. Our politicians must reshape our economic model to deliver both ‘prosperity and justice’. We argue that this can be achieved through new public investment to create good green jobs, a fairer taxation system to ensure the gains of growth are properly shared and significant investment and devolution to regions and nations outside of London to rebalance the country.
However, rebuilding trust is about more than just what government delivers. It is also about shifting the process by which we as a society make decisions - including, who makes those decisions and how citizens are involved. This, then, is the second key shift our policy makers must pursue in seeking to rebuild our politics.
Recent research by IPPR shows that too many people feel that they are not represented in politics and that their voice is not heard. Four in five people in Britain say politicians poorly understand their lives. And only six per cent of people in Great Britain said voters have the greatest sway over public policy (compared to one in two who said political donors, businesses and lobbying groups).
A first step in addressing this would be passing more power to places and people themselves - making policy making more inclusive and less centralised. This could take the form of new powers to elected mayors, but also the use of participatory methods such as citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting to give people a direct say in the decisions that shape their lives.
But, in a representative democracy such as ours, elected representatives will always play a key role in decision making. IPPR research shows we can start rebuilding trust in our members of parliament by ensuring they are genuinely representative of the population, not just on gender and race but also on class, and by making MPs more accountable to citizens.
Only when the lives of the majority are getting better, and politicians are seen to really represent the communities they are there to serve, will trust in politics rebound. This will not be achieved through a change in leader or new governing party alone. It requires deep structural reform to our economic model, the state and our politics. This is the task our political parties must now embrace.