Trust hits new low: 45% of people think politicians put party before country

There is an air of deja vu about this election. Trust and confidence in how Britain is governed is as low as it has ever been – just as it was shortly before the last election five years ago.

Yet the circumstances that have given rise to the public’s pessimistic outlook this time are very different from 2019.

In the weeks and months leading up to the last election, voters’ confidence in politics and politicians was shaken by parliament’s apparent inability to decide the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Now, according to the latest British social attitudes (BSA) report from the National Centre for Social Research, the public mood has darkened further.

In 2019, 34% said they “almost never” trusted “British governments of any party to put the needs of the country above the interests of their own political party”. Now, as many as 45% express that view – a record high in response to a question that has been asked regularly over the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, in 2019, 79% said that the system of governing Britain was in need of “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of improvement. This represented a record high for a question first asked 50 years ago when the country was facing a worsening inflationary spiral and serious industrial unrest. Despite those difficulties, in 1973, only 49% reckoned at that time that there was a need for significant improvement.

Now, according to the latest BSA, once again, 79% say that “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of improvement is required.

A consequence of this decline in trust and confidence appears to have been an increased appetite for re-examining some of Britain’s constitutional rules. A record 53% say that we should change the voting system used to elect the House of Commons so that smaller political parties “get a fair share of MPs”.

Just under half (49%), more than at any point in the last 25 years, now support some form of devolution for England, either through regional assemblies or an English parliament. In both cases, support is markedly higher among those with low levels of trust and confidence.

From Brexit bounce to leavers’ remorse

After the 2019 election, there were signs of improvement in levels of trust and confidence. The proportion looking for substantial improvement in how the country is governed fell in 2020 to 61%, while just 23% said they almost never trusted governments.

But this fall occurred almost entirely among just one half of the population – those who had voted leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The proportion of leavers who felt the country’s system of government needed a great deal of improvement fell sharply from 81% in 2019 to 54% in 2020. Similarly, the proportion who said they almost never trusted the government dropped from 40% to 25%. The success (from their point of view) of Brexit had seemingly given them renewed faith in how they were being governed. In contrast, there was barely any movement among those who had voted remain.

However, Brexit is not as popular now as it was five years ago. The latest opinion polls suggest that, on average, three in five people might vote to rejoin the EU. As many as 71% think the economy is worse off as a result of leaving the EU, while 48% feel immigration to the UK is higher as a result of the decision. Even around a half of those who voted leave concur with those views.

Leavers’ apparent disappointment with what has happened since the UK left the EU has been accompanied by a reversal of the decline in low trust and confidence that had been in evidence in 2020.

Now, as many as 76% believe that Britain’s system of government needs a lot of improvement, only slightly below the 81% who expressed that view in 2019. At the same time, 48% almost never trust governments to prioritise the nation’s needs, slightly above the 40% who felt that way in 2019.

Poor services, low trust

It is not just unhappiness with Brexit that has occasioned the fall in trust and confidence. Levels of dissatisfaction with the NHS are at a record high. And those who are unhappy about the state of the health service are markedly less happy with how Britain is being governed.

As many as 86% of those who are dissatisfied with the NHS say the system of government needs improvement, while 52% almost never trust governments. The equivalent figures among those who are satisfied are 65% and 32%, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, more people now say they are struggling with their income than was the case before 2019. And those in that position have lower trust and confidence, too. As many as 57% say they never trust the government, while 85% believe Britain’s system of government could be improved a lot.

And while it is impossible to show directly, doubtless the political turmoil that has surrounded the fall of two prime ministers may well have served to undermine trust and confidence too.

The challenge facing the next government will not only be to repair the damage that the pandemic, inflation and war have all inflicted on the economy. It will also be to assuage the widespread concern that the public once again have about how they are being governed.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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John Curtice receives funding from UKRI-ESRC.