Why public trust in politicians hits spectacular low in the UK
Published: Mar 06, 2024 08:32 PM
UK Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

UK Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Nobody who has watched British civic life in recent years will have been in the least bit surprised that a recent study by the country's Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found only 12 percent of the public trust their politicians, a spectacular low. 

People feel increasingly alienated from those who are supposed to have been elected to represent their interests. Worse, they feel unable to influence the heedless parliamentary apparatus which seems to be being used to serving the politicians more than it serves the people.

The job of the ONS is to gather, process and analyze data about the United Kingdom's economy, society and population, and is widely regarded as a professional and impartial authority. This makes the findings of its annual Trust in Government survey so striking. 

The collapse in trust in political parties is an unimpressive 12 percent this year, which is down from an already lamentable 20 percent in the previous analysis. The proportion of adults trusting the government itself also fell - from 35 percent to 27 percent - and trust in parliament, the institution where the politicians operate, plummeted from 34 percent to 24 percent. These figures echo a study from a market research company last year, which said only 9 percent of people trusted their politicians to tell the truth (the lowest level in 40 years). The inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that most Britons think that the political class that has the power to make decisions that control their lives are liars.

One reason the UK public is so disillusioned with their politics is the prevailing doctrine which favors political centrism. Party leaders are reluctant to appear too leftist or rightist for fear of driving support away, so they gravitate toward the center. These are not the politics of conviction or ideology, but of opportunity for self-serving individuals who are willing to change their policies and even opinions to give themselves the best chance of winning. 

A general election is expected in Britain this year, in a country that has essentially been a two-party system for generations. The Conservative and Labour parties are electorally dominant and regularly alternate in government, largely because of the country's outdated, unfair and anti-democratic first-past-the-post electoral system, which works to marginalize and exclude voices outside of the center. This makes it difficult for other relevant parties, such as the Greens and especially smaller groups such as communists, to be represented in Westminster.

This feeling of alienation from the process of government is exacerbated by the closeness of the two main parties. At the election, there will be little to choose between the main party's candidates in important aspects of policy. In fact, Rishi Sunak's Tories and Keir Starmer's Labour have recently accused each of stealing the other's policies and mimicking standpoints. Neither of them spoke out against the war in Gaza, for example, until it had been raging for months. Both parties have declared support for rules that prevent families from receiving a state benefit for more than two children - something that affects many low-income households.

At the other extreme, both parties are prepared to lift a cap on bankers' bonuses - something which was devised to discourage reckless investment behavior - and allow them to make unlimited payments. Both parties have also declared the need to continue with austerity-style policies which are blamed for the declining nature of Britain's economy. Both parties favor cracking down on illegal immigration, and approve of higher defense spending, keeping the Trident nuclear deterrent (despite a recent failed test-firing of one of the £17m missiles) and continued support for Ukraine.

If the people, despairing at the lack of choice among those who seek to govern them, should dare to speak out and protest, the establishment has been devoting a lot of time and effort into devising laws aimed at discouraging and restricting demonstrations. The temperature has been further raised by the politicians themselves complaining that the strength of dissent has put them in danger. They call protest marches "hate marches." If there is one that the people hate, it is being lied to and not being served by those whose job it is to serve them. And that is why so few people trust or believe them.

The author is a journalist and lecturer living in Britain. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn