Why are citizens in Britain discontented with politics?By Ben Seyd on 10 October 2013
New research presented at the Citizens and Politics Conference held at the LSE last week points to high levels of public discontent with politics and politicians in Britain. While this discontent is not inexorably declining, policy makers face an uphill task in encouraging greater levels of political trust. People’s expectations and impressions of politics and politicians are overwhelmingly negative, so overcoming them will not be easy. These were among the main conclusions of the conference – funded by the Political Studies Association and the School of Politics at the University of Kent – which brought together 70 policy makers and researchers to discuss the nature and causes of public discontent with politics in Britain today.
The presentations confirmed the widely acknowledged picture of low public regard for politics and politicians. Around two thirds of the population judge British politicians’ standards of honesty and integrity to be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ low, while less than one in ten judges their standards to be high. Only one in ten of the population expresses ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of trust in British politicians while, by contrast, six times that proportion indicate that they trust the police. Moreover, public scepticism about politicians has risen: back in 1986, just one in ten of the population indicated no trust in government, while by 2012 the same sentiment was expressed by almost one third of the population. One piece of better news is that trust is not inexorably declining. In fact, data collected between 1997 and 2013 show that political trust often rises, notably around general elections, and particularly when there is a change of government (voters presumably feeling satisfied at ‘kicking out the rascals’). But trust can also fall in response to more negative events, such as the aftermath of the Iraq war decision in 2003 and the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, incidents which severely dented British citizens’ faith in their government.
Why are people so sceptical? Research conducted as part of the British Election Study by Paul Whiteley showed that trust is highly sensitive to perceptions of government incompetence. Thus George Osborne’s ‘omnishambles’ Budget of 2012 corroded people’s trust in government, over and above people’s feelings about the state of the economy. Trust is also heavily shaped by evaluations of party leaders, perhaps not surprisingly in these days of personalised politics. Levels of trust in the government are highly responsive to evaluations of party leaders; the prime minister in particular is a weathervane through whom evaluations of the trustworthiness of government as a whole are channelled.
Trust is not only a matter of whether governments deliver; it is also shaped by how decisions are taken. Whiteley’s research shows that people who believe that governments treat people fairly are significantly more trusting than people who feel governments are unfair. The role of fairness also appears to be stronger in times of austerity. David Cameron’s repeated claim that “we’re all in this together” may have inadvertently set a standard by which his government is judged, since the impact of fairness perceptions on trust is found to be twice as large for the period after 2010 as it was for the period under the Blair and Brown governments between 2004 and 2010.
Yet the problem of public discontent goes wider than government delivery and fairness. For a start, people’s images of politics itself are overwhelmingly negative. Research conducted by Gerry Stoker and Colin Hay included asking participants in a series of focus groups to identify one word they associated with politics. Of the responses, just seven were found to be positive against 132 that were negative. These negative associations centred on perceptions that politicians routinely engage in deception or spin while also looking after their own interests. Alongside negative images of their work, policy makers must also operate in an environment in which the public holds high expectations of political conduct, while also paying little attention to how politicians actually behave. Research presented by Nicholas Allen and Sarah Birch showed that negative judgements about the honesty and integrity of elected representatives are highest among people who expect more of politicians than they do of ordinary people, and among those who pay little attention to what is going on in politics. Poor public perceptions of politicians thus appear to reflect the high standards against which politicians are judged, and the role of impressions rather than of reality. In fact, and as Stoker and Hay’s focus groups also showed, the more attentive people are to politics, and the more they consider how politics is actually conducted, the less critical of politicians they become.
This suggests that one route towards a more positive regard for politicians might be through greater public awareness and understanding of what politicians do. But this is a long term goal at best, and arguably an unrealistic one. What about other routes? Might trust be bolstered if citizens were given more opportunities to participate in decision making? According to research conducted by John Curtice and Ben Seyd, and by Paul Webb, the answer may be ‘yes’, albeit qualified. Data collected as part of the British Social Attitudes survey show that political reforms that give citizens a direct voice – such as referendums and the recall of MPs – are widely popular and also attract particular support among people with low levels of political trust. By contrast, reforms that maintain representative arrangements – such as changing the electoral system, moving to an elected House of Lords or fixing the parliamentary term – or that move towards a less party dominated model of decision making – such as elected mayors and police commissioners – either attract less popular support or else do little to appeal to those with low levels of trust. Reform of the political system is only likely to engage discontented citizens if it extends to direct democracy, a step from which successive governments have, of course, shied away.
Moreover, reforms that open up new opportunities for citizen participation may engage some groups within the population, but at the cost of further alienating others. Research conducted by Paul Webb identified two groups of ‘discontents’ within the British population: those who support the representative process of decision making, but who have little trust in political actors (‘dissatisfied democrats’) and those who are similarly distrustful, but who also disdain the conflict involved in representative processes and who prefer decisions to be taken without extensive debate and compromise (‘stealth democrats’). Dissatisfied democrats favour greater citizen participation in politics, whether through conventional means (such as voting or donating money to a party) or unconventional means (such as deliberative forums with their local MP). For these people, opening up the political system to more participation seems to present an effective response to their discontent. But stealth democrats are less supportive of these forms of participation; only participation that bypasses elected representatives altogether, such as referendums, provides the type of politics desired by this group of people.
Taken together, the research presented at the conference provides us with a better understanding of the nature and causes of political discontent in Britain today. The findings also showed how tricky it is likely to be to design effective remedies. This truly is an area where no ‘quick fixes’ exist.
Ben Seyd is Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics at the University of Kent. The ‘Citizens and Politics in Britain Today: Still a Civic Culture?’ conference was held in London on 26 September. Conference details, including papers and presentations, are available here. Journalist Dan Jellinek has also written about the conference here and here.