Freefall: how a year of chaos has undermined trust in politics

IPPR Harry Quilter-Pinner

The public’s trust in politicians has fallen by nine percentage points in just 18 months, as two thirds of British voters now believe that they are “merely out for themselves”, according to new research commissioned by IPPR.

A YouGov survey of over 1,700 adults in Britain shows that 66 per cent of the public believe that politicians are only out for themselves. Last November 63 per cent held this view, while in May 2021 it was 57 per cent.

The drop of nine percentage points in the last 18 months is a quick acceleration of the growing distrust in politicians. For comparison, it took seven years for the previous drop of nine percentage points, and 42 years before that.

Only 4 per cent of the public believe politicians are doing their best for the country, while 19 per cent think that politicians prioritise their party.

Voters across the political spectrum are united in their distrust; 67 per cent of remain voters, 68 per cent of leave voters, 64 per cent of Conservative voters and 69 per cent of Labour voters believe that politicians are merely out for themselves.

A decrease in trust in politicians is profoundly disturbing as it is linked to long term damaging consequences for democracy, such as:

  • Lower voter turnout especially among under-represented groups
  • Political polarisation and the rise of populist challenger parties
  • Less effective, and less progressive, government because policy makers find it harder to find a consensus on policy and struggle with legitimacy in using the powers of the state

Further recent polling by IPPR shows that citizens increasingly feel they lack representation and voice in how society is governed. 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 do.

The Institute is calling for reforms to rebuild trust in politics, including:

  • Passing more power to places and people – this means making politics more inclusive and less centralised through new powers for elected mayors and the use of participatory methods, such as citizens assemblies
  • Ensuring politicians are more representative – we can rebuild trust in parliamentarians by having a more reflective demographic in Westminster, especially more diversity in class
  • Reforming our economic model – Trust grows when our economy is growing and living standards are rising – and when the state delivers access to high quality services. In the current context, this means protecting people from the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and dealing with creaking public services.