Can We Trust Politicians to Do Anything?

Published On April 20, 2015 | Blogs, Uncategorized

740558_10151173209315216_986632150_oBy: Cameron Westwood


One word being bandied about a lot in the current election campaign is ‘trust’. Ed Balls recently said, ‘don’t trust Tories on VAT after election’; The Sunday Express told us not to trust Labour to manage the economic recovery; Wales Office Minister Jenny Randerson said neither the Conservatives nor Labour can be trusted to finish the job of devolution; at the same time Ed Milliband in his election Manifesto is asking that we do trust him on the economy.

When faced with so many people whom we supposedly can’t trust, what are we supposed to do? Should we trust them, anyway?

We can think of trust in politicians in two ways: Do we trust politicians to do what they say they are going to do, and do we trust politicians to tell the truth. These are of course related; we could simply ask if we trust politicians to tell the truth about whether they actually did what they said they would. However, there are some differences between these two options, and it’s not always easy, or useful, to trust in either case.

If we ask whether we can trust politicians to do what they say, then we have to take into consideration the context in which they must deliver on their promises, i.e., how much capacity to act do politicians actually have? Nick Clegg comes to mind here. One could rightfully ask whether anyone can trust the Liberal Democrats to stay true to their word given the number of campaign pledges they reneged on in the last government. Of course this would be to misunderstand the nature of coalition government and the extent to which it forces compromise between the parties in power. In this sense having trusted Nick Clegg to do what he said he would, or in the case of tuition fees, not to do what he said he wouldn’t, might have been to have placed undue expectations on what was legitimately within his remit as a minority partner in a coalition.

Similarly, if we trust politicians when they say they will cut net inward migration to less than 100,000, then we are fooling ourselves by believing this is even in the realm of possibility given EU rules on free movement. Of course one solution here might be for politicians to limit their promises to those things that they might actually be able to deliver on, or at least to heavily caveat any promise they make. How interesting this would be, and whether this would lead to an improvement in trust, is hard to say.

So, what about trusting politicians to tell the truth? Again, a key consideration is whether this is a fair, or even legitimate, expectation we can place on politicians as far as campaign promises are concerned. Though we should expect politicians not to lie about things they’ve done, expenses they’ve claimed, names they have or haven’t used, when it comes to the arguably more subjective or, what might be labelled, ideological points, does truth even come into it? Politicians might argue that cutting the deficit or raising taxes are necessary manoeuvres, but this might just stem from particular views on how a state should or shouldn’t be run. The same can be said for debates regarding the welfare state, tuition fees, devolution and Trident, to name just a few. In other words, it is difficult to talk about ‘truth’ in such cases when there are so many different, often competing, conceptions of what the ‘truth’ might be.

Yet despite all of the above talk about which party or politicians you can or cannot trust seems fruitless when you consider that almost nobody trusts politicians, anyway. The ironic fact being that when we are told not to trust this or that politician, the ‘truth’ is that none of us did to start with. Data released at the beginning of the year by Ipsos MORI indicate that the public continue to trust politicians less than they trust any other of the professions included in the survey, a trend which started in 2009 when for the first time in the history of the survey, trust in politicians fell below that of journalists (but you can trust me, honest!). To put this in context, roughly 16 per cent of people surveyed said they trust politicians to tell the truth, whereas 22 per cent trust estate agents, and 31 per cent trust bankers. Poor politicians. (In an ironic aside, the survey also indicated that just 51 per cent actually trust pollsters to be telling the truth, so whether we’re to believe any of the results cited above is questionable; after all, there are only ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’.)

In short, trust is not a very helpful concept when it comes to assessing the suitability of any given politician, as it either places undue expectations on what is achievable or is undermined by the highly subjective nature of different political viewpoints on how to deal with any given matter. More useful might be dropping use of the word trust – remembering that nobody trusts politicians anyway – and hoping that politicians simply get on with outlining how they believe their state should be run. On the other hand, we can always trust election campaigns to yield a silly argument about a kitchen.

Photo credit: Becki Scott (creative commons).