Trust and engagement in British politics continues decline

26 January 2010

The British Social Attitudes survey today reported on the decline in a sense civic duty in Britain.

Ahead of the General Election, the declining number of those who feel it is their duty to vote has been widely reported, including on the BBC and Jon Snow's Channel 4 news blog. The annual survey shows that in 1991, 68% felt it was everyone's duty to vote whereas now the figure is 56% - or just over half.

The report also showed the number who believed "it's not really worth voting" has more than doubled from 8% in the early 1990s to 18% - around two in five people.

Active blogger Mark Pack, writing on the Mandate website, makes an interesting critique of the 'churnalistic' coverage. Pack's point is that the decline in civic duty reported in the figures follows a trend of decline in voter turnout at elections. Given this, Pack points out that it is not surprising to find that less people believe it is a must to turn out at the ballot box.

The British Social Attitudes survey* also collected data on trust in politicians and government. Following the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009 this data will be closely looked at to assess the scale of the damage. Although the latest trust data is yet to be released, Sarah Butt, a researcher on the project, confirmed that "indicative findings" from the raw data "showed a big drop off" in trust in politicians.

Trend data over the last twenty years shows that trust in MPs has remained at consistently low levels. In 1994 half of people (49%) said they would almost never trust a politician to tell the truth when they were "in a tight corner". In 2007 this figure was exactly the same and has barely fluctuated.

Trust in government does however show decline. In 1987 between 37% and 47% of people trusted the government to put the interests of the country above their political party, but this figure had dropped off significantly by 1996 to just 22%. The figure has only got above 30% in one study since.

The Independent leader, responding to the results of the survey, today called on politicians to show greater courage in shaping rather than just following public opinion.

PR firm Edelman today also released the results of a global survey on trust among 'informed publics'. Despite the tumultuous events of the last year, its findings showed that levels of trust in the UK remain generally stable. Trust in NGOs (51%) and businesses (47%) is higher than among government (35%) and the media (27%).

Only trust in government fell noticeably - down from 41% in 2009. And, it may be a surprise that trust in the media remained so low and showed no sign of improvement, despite its role in exposing the parliamentary expenses scandal.

Of course, surveys need to be used carefully and the Edelman survey does not seek to be representative of the population at large. It only interviews a select group of people it refers to as the 'informed publics' - degree-level educated individuals in the top 25% income bracket.

* The historic dataset of the British Social Attitudes survey is searchable through a site developed by the Centre for Comparative European Survey Data.

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