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ELECTIONS 2004: 'POLITICIANS NEED TO CHANGE THEIR WAYS IF TRUST AND TURNOUT ARE TO BE RESTORED'

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Falling levels of trust in politicians and of turnout in elections will only be reversed if politicians change thei...
Falling levels of trust in politicians and of turnout in elections will only be reversed if politicians change their ways.

This was a key message to MPs, as politicians of all parties struggle to persuade voters to go to the polls in the European, local and London elections on 10 June.

The message was delivered by researchers from the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends and the Constitution Unit*, who will be reporting the results of research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through its Democracy and Participation programme.

Trust in government has declined. Thirty years ago, two in five Britons trusted government to put the nation's needs over those of their party 'always' or 'most of the time'. Today, that figure has halved to little more than one in five.

Professor John Curtice, who led the study, says: 'There are three common explanations for the fall in trust. People say it reflects disappointment with governments or a decline in trust across society generally. Or, they blame the tabloids. We found none of these theories really works.'

Disappointment: People's expectations of governments are much the same now as they were in the 1980s. While as many as 84% think governments should provide decent health care for all, so did exactly the same proportion in 1986. Similarly 79% expect governments to provide decent living standards for the elderly, almost exactly the same as the 80% who did so in 1986. Moreover, the numbers who think governments have delivered successfully and those who think they have been unsuccessful are evenly matched.

General trust across society: At around 40%, the proportion who say that most people can be trusted has changed little over the last two decades.

Tabloids: The decline in trust in government was more marked (-6%) among broadsheet readers than it has been among tabloid readers (-2%) during Labour's first term.

Prof Curtice suggests a better explanation for the fall in trust in go vernment lies in the sleaze allegations of recent years. 'Most of the fall in trust occurred in the early 1990s when 'sleaze' entered the political vocabulary. Meanwhile, amongst those who think that the Labour party 'very often' does favours for those who give the party money, only 13 per cent mostly trust governments to put the nation's interests first. In contrast, amongst those who think Labour does such favours rarely or never, 36 per cent trust governments. So it seems unlikely that trust and confidence in government will be restored until the parties stop competing over who is the most honest and upright.'

Meanwhile, despite the fall in turnout, there are few signs of growing apathy amongst the electorate. There has not been a decline in the numbers expressing an interest in politics or saying there is a duty to vote. There is even some suggestion that involvement in other forms of political activity such as contacting MPs or going on a demonstration have become more commonplace over the last two decades. And while trust in government has declined the fall largely happened some time before the decline in turnout.

Rather than the result of growing apathy, the decline in turnout has happened because those who were already relatively uninterested in politics have become particularly likely to stay at home. Turnout fell between 1997 and 2001 by only six points amongst those with 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of interest in politics, but by as much as 28 points amongst those with no interest in politics at all.

Prof Curtice explains: 'Those with weak attachments to the political system were particularly likely to stay at home because they felt that little was at stake. 43 per cent of voters felt there was not much difference between the Conservatives and Labour in 2001, well up on the 22 per cent who took that view in 1997. And those who perceived little difference between the parties were 17 points less likely to vote. This suggests that if the parties become more competitive, the recent fall in electoral turnout may well be reversed.'

As a result of their research, Prof Curtice and his colleagues believe it is premature to proclaim that democracy in Britain is in crisis. 'The decline in trust and turnout is not due to long-term social forces, but to short-term political ones, such as sleaze in the early nineties or a perceived lack of difference between the main parties since 1997. This means the remedies lie largely in the hands of politicians themselves. Only a closely fought and clear competition between the parties appears to prompt many citizens to cast their vote. British politics faces a challenge, but no 'crisis' yet.'

NOTES

1.The report 'Is Britain facing a Crisis of Democracy?' was written by Catherine Bromley, John Curtice and Ben Seyd of the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends and the Constitution Unit at UCL.

2. The research was based on questions included on the annual British and Scottish Social Attitudes Survesy undertaken by NatCen, National Centre for Social Research. In particular the research interviewed 2,293 people across Britain and 1,663 people in Scotland in 2000 and 2,287 across Britain and 1,665 in Scotland in 2002. Further details of the British Social Attitudes survey are available hereand the Scottish Social Attitudes survey at http://www.scotcen.org.uk/

3.The researchwas funded by the ESRC as part of i ts Democracy and Participation Programme. To find out more about the programme, visit www.essex.ac.uk/democracy

4.The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and government. The ESRC invests more than£76m every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More information is available at http://www.esrc.ac.uk/

REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at http://www.regard.ac.uk/

6.The Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends is jointly based at the National Centre for Social Research and the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford. It specialises in the survey based study of electoral behaviour and social attitudes. More information is available at http://www.crest.ox.ac.uk/

The Constitution Unit at University College, London is the UK's foremost independent research body on constitutional change. More information is available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/

* The draft report is available here(if prompted, answer 'No' to updating document).

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