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Trust in any government to act in the national interest ‘at a record low’

The British Attitudes survey has revealed growing mistrust in governments (Alamy/PA)
The British Attitudes survey has revealed growing mistrust in governments (Alamy/PA)

A record percentage of people rarely trust any government to prioritise the needs of the country over internal party interests, research has found.

The annual survey of British Social Attitudes found 45% of respondents “almost never” believe governments of any party are fully focused on challenges facing the UK, which is higher than the previous record high of 40% recorded in 2009 following the MPs’ expenses scandal.

A record 58% also said they “almost never” trust politicians of any party to “tell the truth when they are in a tight corner” – a 19-point increase from 2020.

The survey, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) last year, found 79% believe the system of governing in the UK could be improved “quite a lot” or “a great deal”.

This is equivalent to the record high recorded during the political stalemate over Brexit in 2019, and up 18 points since 2020.

Polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice said the results show the next government will “need to address the concerns of a public that is as doubtful as it has ever been about the trustworthiness and efficacy of the country’s system of government”.

NatCen, which published data going back to 1986, identified a sharp rise in disenchantment with how the country is governed among those who voted to leave the European Union.

The percentage of leave voters who said they almost never trust governments to prioritise the needs of the country has risen from 25% in 2020, a figure which reflected an increase in trust among this group following Brexit, to 48% in the latest survey.

Moreover, 60% of leave voters said they almost never trust politicians to tell the truth when in a “tight corner”, an increase of 17 points since 2020, while 76% said the system of government needs “quite a lot or a great deal” of improvement.

New Year Honours List 2018
Professor John Curtice (Strathclyde University/PA)

NatCen concluded that policy failures had also undermined confidence in government, with problems in the NHS and the cost-of-living crisis contributing to a lack of trust.

Some 86% of people who were dissatisfied with the NHS said the system of government is in need of significant improvement.

This compares to 65% of those who were satisfied with the health service having the same opinion.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of those who are struggling with living costs say they almost never trust politicians to tell the truth, while 49% of those who are living “comfortably” share the same view.

This low level of confidence has boosted support for constitutional change, the survey found.

A record 53% of those surveyed said that the system of voting should be changed “to allow smaller parties to get a fairer share of MPs”, compared to 40% who want to keep the current system.

There is also evidence of growing support for devolution.

For the first time, under half of people in England backed the current parliamentary system over introducing a separate English parliament or a model of regional government.

Professor Curtice, who is a senior research fellow at NatCen, said: “The next government will not simply face the challenge of reviving Britain’s stuttering economy and its struggling public services., it will also need to address the concerns of a public that is as doubtful as it has ever been about the trustworthiness and efficacy of the country’s system of government.

“Addressing some of the policy challenges will help in that endeavour. However, it is likely to require much more than that – in particular, a style and manner of governing that persuades people that the government has their interests at heart after all.”

The enduring impact of Brexit and the increased profile of issues relating to culture and identity has created a new “dividing line” in British politics, the research concluded.

The survey identified a persistent divide among voters on identity issues which now exists alongside the traditional debate between those on the left and right about the economy and inequality.

This new “duality” is likely to be a key factor of in the way people vote in the General Election on July 4, researchers said.

The survey asked a series of questions aimed at measuring where people stand on the political spectrum characterised by left and right.

But it also used another set of questions on law and order and traditional values to identify where people are on a spectrum which positions voters as ether “libertarian” or “authoritarian”.

The survey showed that the left-right divide is still apparent in support for Labour and the Conservatives, but researchers said how people vote has also become “strongly related to people’s position on the libertarian-authoritarian dimension”.

Libertarians are up to 42 points more likely than authoritarians to support Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party.

This compares to them being 21 points more likely to do so in 2015.

Meanwhile authoritarians are 32 points more likely to identify as Conservative or Reform, compared to being 19 points more likely in 2015.

These trends are reflected in how the parties’ supporters divide on specific identity and cultural issues such as immigration and gender.

Voters who believe migrants undermine Britain’s culture are much more likely than previously to support the Conservatives or other right-wing parties such as Reform UK than those who take a positive view on migration.

There is a 33-percentage point difference in the combined level of support for the Conservatives and Reform/Ukip between those who think that migrants undermine Britain’s culture and those who feel migrants enrich its culture.

This compared to a 16-point difference in 2015.

The survey identified a similar pattern among those who are positive about migration, with a 48-point difference in favour of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, compared to 21 percentage points in 2015.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Curtice said: “It is often suggested that now that Brexit no longer dominates the political agenda that the battle for votes has reverted to being simply a contest between left and right.

“However, the terrain in which the parties are fighting is now a two-dimensional space in which issues of culture and identity, including Brexit, are as important as the divide between left and right.”

The survey consisted of 5,578 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults and was conducted between September 12 and October 31, 2023.