Trust in MPs

I have been looking at the data in the latest survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life, carried out for the Committee on Standards in Public Life.   One interesting contrast continues to persist in public attitudes towards Members of Parliament.  Attitudes towards MPs in general tend to be far more negative than those towards the local MP.  This has been tapped over time by various surveys and it is not confined to the UK.  The same applies in the USA in respect of the House of Representatives and its individual members. 

The survey finds that between 2004 and 2010 the percentage who trusted MPs in general to tell the truth ranged from 26% to 29%.    The percentage trusting ‘your local MP’ to tell the truth ranged from 40% to 48%.    Possibly counter-intuitively, those showing the greatest levels of trust (in MPs generally and the local MP)  were young people: levels of distrust increased with age.   In terms of occupational background, skilled/manual workers tended to be most distrustful, and in terms of ethnicity those classed as White British were far more distrustful than people drawn from minority backgrounds.  Perhaps not surprisingly, supporters of third parties were more distrustful than those who supported the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democratic parties. 

The most worrying finding, though, is that the percentage thinking that MPs are dedicated to doing a good job for the public fell from 46% in 2008 to 26% in 2010.  Those thinking MPs are competent in doing their job fell from 36% to 26%.  There is clearly a major task involved in restoring public confidence.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to Trust in MPs

  1. Alice Stretch says:

    The general public attitude is mainly based on tabloid spinning, especially concerning the MPs expenses. I don’t see the need for having media affecting decisions in this country, I feel as though those in politics are condemned to make decisions based on their public image. It could be argued that what journalists express is the opinion of the public as a more direct lobbying method, but surely as they’re elected to represent their constituencies, they are well-equipped enough to make decisions on behalf of their constituents rather than on the arm of media outrage? The MPs expenses was a scandal, but it did not, necessarily, need to have the ramifications that it did. I think, as the survey suggests, those who work with or meet their MPs are less critical, on the whole, of MPs and those not involved directly merely base their opinion on conjecture circulated by journalists. I think this survey is exacerbating the situation, as when I heard it reported, I thought that people may begin to question their trust in MPs.
    How do you think trust could be restored between MPs and the public? I think the government’s ‘transparency drive’ is doing well, but still not appealing to the masses per se.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Alice Stretch: Many thanks. I think you make some very fair points. I rather agree with you about the survey and would endorse your conclusion. I think Parliament as an institution can also do more. Both Houses are already taking steps to increase engagement and, indeed, awareness. Both Houses are fairly transparent in what they do, but being so does not mean that people outside are aware of it.

  2. Dean B says:

    The same trend appears in a lot of surveys: people rate the NHS poorly but speak well of their own experiences with it; they say the rail network is awful but that all their recent journeys were fine… I’m afraid it may just be that a lot of people are stupid.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dean B: I think you are correct, at least in your opening observation. There is a tendency to distinguish the institution from those its members who provide a service directly to individuals. I think it rather bears out Ivor Crewe’s observation in respect of MP-constituency relations that ‘familiarity breeds content’.

  3. Rob Peutrell says:

    Perhaps there is also something wrong with a notion of politics that privileges MPs, Parliament and the electoral process rather than popular participation in a lively, democratic, educative public realm. ‘The only remedies against the misuse of public power by private individuals,’ argues the late Hannah Arendt, ‘lie in the public realm itself, in the light which exhibits each deed enacted within its boundaries … how dangerous [the ballot] might be to allow the people a share in public power without providing them at the same time with more public space than the ballot box and with more opportunity to make their voices heard in public than election day. … [giving] power to the citizens, without giving them the opportunity of being republicans and of acting as citizens.’ Whinging about your MP is an expression of a privatised, a-political culture, one encouraged – it has to be said – by the so-called political classes. I wonder whether there is an analogy with medicine here. As my sister (a doctor) often reminds me, we unrealistically expect pain-free, risk-free health care from the medical profession, and are disappointed when we feel pain and risk. What she finds harder to acknowledge is how the medical profession has historically cultivated these expectations in order to enjoy the benefits of inflated salaries and social status.

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