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Farage more trusted than Sunak, but there’s bad news for Starmer and Davey too

More voters trust Nigel Farage to tell the truth than Rishi Sunak, but none of the main party leaders enjoy high levels of trust, a poll shared exclusively with i has found.

Just 26 per cent of those questioned trust the Prime Minister not to lie, while the Reform leader was trusted by 28 per cent, according to Focaldata research commissioned by the cross-party think tank Demos as part of its Trustwatch election project.

More people trusted Keir Starmer (39 per cent) than either of the Labour leader’s two main rivals, while 24 per cent said they trusted Lib Dem leader Ed Davey.

Almost half (49 per cent) said they were sceptical about Sunak’s claim he went without Sky TV as a child and 40 per cent said the Tories’ contested claim Labour would hike taxes by £2,000 had damaged public trust.

Few events have increased trust over the course of the campaign, the poll found. The Labour manifesto had the biggest positive impact on trust (increasing trust for 30 per cent), and Farage returning to lead Reform had the second biggest (increasing trust for 26 per cent).

But when it came to Farage a higher proportion of the public (39 per cent) said him becoming leader of Reform damaged trust in politics, including 48 per cent of Boomers (those aged 60+).

More than half (55 per cent) of the public said the PM leaving D-Day commemorations early hit trust in politics.

Across the board, there were low levels of trust in people and organisations not to lie during the general election campaign. Local and national news sources (47 per cent and 44 per cent respectively) fared better than policy experts (37 per cent).

The poll of 1,000 Britons also asked people if they were able to trust politicians to be honest about the challenges and limitations of government.

Again, more felt able to trust Starmer (39 per cent) and Farage (29 per cent) than they did the PM (26 per cent). Conservative MPs had the lowest level of trust in this respect (22 per cent) compared to Labour MPs (40 per cent).

Polling for Demos shows a lack of trust in politics

Half of the public say they have discussed the election with friends and family (53 per cent) or read national news about it (50 per cent), and a significant proportion say that they watched or seen clips from the TV debates (43 per cent).

Demos’ chief executive, Polly Curtis, said in a comment for i: “Trust has emerged as the defining story of this campaign. You hear interviewers pleading with politicians to be frank with voters about the sale of the challenges facing us. You see it in the furious row over the parties’ spending plans.

“This is the context in which this election is taking place: one in which trust in politics is at crisis point.

“Through our Trustwatch 2024 panel, we are engaging ordinary citizens during the campaign’s most significant moments to understand how we can fix political trust. What’s clear is that they recognise tensions politicians must balance between ambition and realism.

“In putting these tensions to members of the public, our polling has identified how we might begin restoring trust. Voters don’t want to be promised the world only to see their government ultimately fall short. They want a balance between a realistic vision and an ambitious one, one which generally prizes competence over charisma.”

Trust is now the dominant battleground of this election

The single most insightful thing we’ve learnt in this election campaign, more telling than the manifestos, more informative than the leaders’ debates and certainly more important than the gaffes, was the publication of the British Social Attitudes report charting the disastrous state of trust in politics now.

Trust is already the poisonous undercurrent to this campaign. This is now the Trust Election.

You can hear it in nearly every question at the leaders’ debate: In an audience question from Amy during the Sky news debate, who described the picture of the queen sat alone at her husband’s funeral, contrasted with what we learnt about the partying politicians in Downing Street.

“That’s where the trust broke down,” she said.

At Demos, we’ve been hearing this vividly through our Trustwatch 2024 project, in partnership with i.

We are working with 32 ordinary voters through the election to hear how the campaign is impacting on their levels of trust.

During the Sky debate last Wednesday, some of our Trustwatch panel tuned in and gave us their live reactions.

After Beth Rigby grilled Starmer on his changed positions on Jeremy Corbyn and a second EU referendum, we heard that the Labour leader “came across as dishonest” and that while Starmer “has the right to change his mind” he should “be honest about it”.

A non-voter on our panel acknowledged that it is “difficult because you are obligated to tow the party line and be loyal to the leadership” but that his “evasive answer to the question was pretty terrible, even when pushed to answer it repeatedly”.

This idea of ‘levelling with the public’ has been a key theme throughout our Trustwatch project and it was fascinating to see this mirrored in Sky’s coverage of last night’s debate.

One Conservative voter felt that Sunak’s apology for his D-Day departure “came across as sincere and honest”, while an SNP voter felt that they were used to hearing apologies and that “their PR will have written their apology for them”.

The challenging quest for authenticity and sincerity is present throughout our panel discussions, with several panellists weary of ‘politicians’ answers’, photo-ops and other more choreographed elements of the campaign.

There are tensions in what they are asking for from politicians: People have described wanting politicians to level with them and be honest about the scale of the problems; but they also want hope.

Some wanted charismatic leaders; but others trustworthy managerialism. Some told us they want politicians to tell them the truth; but they are equally frustrated with the media narratives and interview techniques they feel are getting in the way. It’s an impossible line to tread.

The theme of trust is now so omnipresent that we’ve reached an inflection point. It’s no longer just an undercurrent to the campaign, it’s the overt test each party must meet.

Asked on the Today programme about trust, the foreign secretary Lord Cameron, said: “What this election is now about is who do you trust to take the country forward?”

Do you trust the Conservatives on their record? Do you trust Labour on what they have (and haven’t yet) told you they will do in government?

Trust is now the dominant battleground of this election, and with that there’s a risk that none of us will benefit.

There’s a phenomenon known as the “liar’s dividend” which is applied to disinformation on social media, which suggests that you don’t need that much disinformation for people to simply stop believing everything, and that over-amplifying false information leads to a disproportionate eroding of trust in information.

In addition, you need to look at who is benefiting from this disinformation: see Trump’s attacks on “fake news”.

We could now be witnessing the same effect in this Trust Election. 

When he was asked about trust on the radio Cameron responded by attacking Keir Starmer’s record on trust and his role in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.

As trust becomes weaponised in this campaign it’s unlikely voters are going to trust one side more based on the arguments they put forward; it’s far more likely that distrust of the whole system will be compounded. Using the same political tactics on trust will just contribute to the trust doom loop.

It’s hard to see how we escape that doom loop – the most salient issue has always been weaponised.

The problem now is no longer necessarily the actions of any individual politicians, but the record of years of failure and how that has left us so disillusioned.

It’s structural distrust, not something any one politician can reverse. But one thing is very certain: more of the same is not going to fix it.

Polly Curtis

Polly Curtis is Chief Executive of Demos

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