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The Long Decline of Trust in Government

John Rentoul

honesty The Long Decline of Trust in GovernmentPublic confidence in the honesty of government declined dramatically during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister, according to a new study by Professor Paul Whiteley of the University of Essex.

Blair suffered two big drops, one after the Bernie Ecclestone affair six months after his election, and one after the Iraq war in 2003. The change to Gordon Brown in 2007 made no difference, but the election of a new government in 2010 improved perceptions of the government’s honesty briefly.

Prof Whiteley has compiled data from Gallup and YouGov for the past 16 years, recording answers to the question: “Do you think that the Government has, on balance, been honest and trustworthy, or not?”

When Blair was first elected, around 80 per cent of respondents said the Government had been “honest and trustworthy”. After Blair changed policy on tobacco sponsorship of motor racing, on which he had been lobbied by Ecclestone, the boss of Formula One who had given Labour £1m, that figure fell to around 60 per cent.

Blair’s honesty rating then declined erratically to around 40 per cent over five years, before dropping again after the Iraq war to about 25 per cent.

The rating touched bottom, below 20 per cent, at the time of the MPs’ expenses scandal under Brown in 2009, before shooting up above 40 per cent for the first six months of the coalition government, since when it has tailed off back to around 30 per cent.

Prof Whiteley has analysed the data to try to identify the factors that influence trust, which I haven’t had time to look at in detail, and to which I hope to return later. It would also be interesting to see if the same question was asked before 1997: I suspect that Blair started from an unusually high point.*

The graph here is taken from Prof Whiteley’s lecture at a Conference on “Citizens and Politics in Britain Today” at the London School of Economics on Thursday. The figures are from Gallup telephone polls 1997-2003 and from YouGov online polls 2004-2013.

*Update: The question was not asked by Gallup in its polls from 1937 to 1975, of which I have the two-volume archive; the closest I can find is one which asks if the three parties have “honest leaders”. In October 1963, 44 per cent of people said this “applies” to the Conservative party, 53 per cent to Labour and 47 per cent to the Liberal Party.

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  • mightymark

    I absolutely agree John – but you and I are I think, the sensible left, able among other things, to discern daft conspiracy theory from state activity designed to protect.

  • mightymark

    My recollection is that the only burst in the bubble was a short term one over the transport/oil blockade thing/strike (sorry don’t recall the exact details) but things had clearly recovered by 2001 for Blair to win with a majority only few short of that in 1997. And for all the criticism about the wars etc he also won in 2005 with a very respectable majority. I think it entirely possible he might have won in 2010. Brown, McBride and co have a lot to answer for!

    PS Are you sure about Wilson’s overall majority was 13 in 1964? – I thought it was more like 4 or 5.

  • Pacificweather

    I would not call 35.2% of the vote a respectable majority in 2005. It was not that people liked or trusted him, he just got lucky in the post code lottery.

    You are right about Wilson’s overall majority of 4 but in those days he could count on the Liberal’s 9 seats. Interestingly, the LibDems got twice the vote that the Liberals got in 1964 in both 2005 and 2010. Of course, the Tories got more votes than TB did in 2005 so it all down to where the votes are cast not the number.


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