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November 3, 2020

Who to trust?

Trust is that most fickle of commodities. Hard to win, easy to lose, and once lost even harder or impossible to regain. Which is why the slightest misstep by those in authority during this Covid crisis has had such ramifications for the reported levels of public trust in the respective administrations. When political leaders tell the population that more restrictions are necessary, trust that ‘we are all in this together’ is stretched even further. The John Smith Centre, a research organisation that promotes trust in public services, has published three new reports on levels of trust amongst UK adults.



Trust is an essential requirement in human society. A properly functioning democracy, economic activity and public services all depend on trust. Political trust matters because of its relationship to engagement or participation in politics. The John Smith Centre, a research organisation that promotes trust in public services, has published three new reports on levels of trust amongst UK adults.

Key points are:

  • Since the 2008 financial crisis there has been a decline in political support and trust in key institutions but the data suggests that talk of a “crisis of trust” appears to be over-exaggerated.
  • Trust is unevenly shared: there are stark differences by age, gender and different income groups. A middle-aged, professional man, earning over £60,000 a year is more likely than anyone else to believe that democracy is functioning well and in his interest; unlike the majority of the young, those on low incomes, or women.
  • During a crisis like Covid-19, effective policy responses depend on people trusting the government and public authorities. Young people, women and people on low incomes have all experienced disproportionate impacts of the pandemic and may continue to bear the brunt of the economic fall-out so the trust gap has implications for policy making and communications.

This briefing will be of general interest to councillors and officers in local government and it may be of particular relevance to those with responsibility for responses to Covid-19, communications, democratic services and equalities.

Briefing in full


The apparent decline in trust in politics and institutions in western democracies has been the subject of much debate in the last few decades. Researchers have attempted to measure levels of trust in different institutions and explain the trends. According to the 2019 Eurobarometer survey of public opinion across European countries, only 21 per cent of UK residents tend to trust the Westminster government (72 per cent tend not to trust it). UK residents’ trust in local authorities is considerably higher than trust in central government. 46 per cent of people in the UK tend to trust local government (compared to 45 per cent who tend not to trust it). This marked a fall of nearly 6 per cent in trust in local government on the previous year, though the rate has tended to fluctuate since the survey began – trust was at its lowest at 42 per cent in 2014 and its highest at 52 per cent in 2018.

The John Smith Centre which supports engagement in public and political life and promotes civilised debate and representative democracy in the UK, have published the findings of research produced in collaboration with the Institute of Public Policy Research Scotland and University of Glasgow. The analysis combines the findings of existing research papers on political trust with a bespoke survey of 1,424 UK adults in Scotland, Wales and England. The survey was conducted in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. The findings are presented as a trilogy of reports on trust by agegender and income group.

The age gap

Understanding levels of trust amongst young people may shed light on young people’s political attitudes and motivations to participate in politics and public life. In the UK, trust in politicians amongst young people is low, as it is in the general population. Compared to other western European countries, trust amongst young people in the UK is below average. Meanwhile, younger people are less likely to participate in politics than older groups (particularly through voting); and the 18-24 age group report lower levels of political knowledge than older groups. Some important intergenerational differences emerged in voting behaviour between younger and older people at the EU referendum and subsequent elections. Intergenerational inequality was rising up the political agenda before Covid-19 struck but the pandemic could exacerbate inequality if young people experience ongoing economic disadvantage as a result of Covid-19. It is important to note that the field work for the survey was carried out pre-pandemic.

There are competing theories on age differences in public opinion: differences could just be a straightforward ‘age effect’ (people of a certain age tend to hold certain opinions); a ‘life-cycle effect’ (whereby people’s views change as they go through different phases of life); or a ‘generational effect’ (whereby a cohort shares views that continue as they move through the age groups, possible formed by the context in which they came of age). The report favours the ‘age effect’ theory to explain differences in levels of trust and therefore sees the survey results as grounds for some hope. However, if the effect is generational, it will be interesting to see whether the coronavirus pandemic proves to be a formative experience for today’s young people that informs their views on politics and institutions throughout their life.

Key survey findings

Figure 1 below shows the level of trust that young people have in key institutions.

Source: John Smith Centre, The Age Gap: young people and trust, 2020

  • The police are the most trusted institution amongst young people, followed by the courts, high street banks and the BBC.
  • Trust in political institutions is consistently low, but local councils fare better than central institutions, with just over 30 per cent expressing trust.
  • Younger age groups are more likely to trust politicians and to believe they fulfil their pledges than older age groups (over 30s). Only 21 per cent of 18-24 year olds and 18 per cent of 25-34 year olds strongly trust elected politicians but older groups trust them even less.
  • Of all age groups surveyed, those aged 25-34 are the most likely to trust their local MP; however, this is just one in three young people.
  • Only one in five young people reported high levels of trust in the print media; young people who read the news daily or more frequently are less trusting of political institutions than their peers who read the news less frequently.

The gender gap

Women’s representation and participation in politics is substantially lower than men’s in democracies across the globe, so there is interest in women’s levels of political trust and the barriers to women’s participation in public life. Across major western economies, women have less trust than men, and the UK follows this trend. Women in the UK are less likely than men to participate in institutionalised politics (through contacting their representative or voting) but more likely to sign a petition, joining a demonstration or boycotting certain goods.

Key survey findings

Figure 2 below compares the level of trust than men and women have in key institutions. There are some marked gender differences.

  • Women have lower levels of trust than men in politicians, the UK parliament, the UK government and their MP than men; women are underrepresented in these institutions which could explain their lower levels of trust.
  • Women have higher levels of trust than men in local councils and the police; one explanation of this gender gap might be that women rely more on public services and have more interaction with them, fostering trust.
  • 24 per cent of women agree that democracy was working well, compared to 31 per cent of men.
  • 24 per cent of women agree with the statement “The people we elect as MPs try to keep the promises they made during the election campaign”, compared to 32 per cent of men.
  • Women who voted remain in the EU referendum are significantly more trusting in politicians than those who voted leave, despite there being a pro-Brexit majority in the House of Commons at the point this study was conducted. The same trend was found amongst remain and leave voting men, but both groups of men had higher levels of trust than women.
  • Fewer women who voted Labour at the 2017 general election have high levels of trust in politicians (one in ten) compared to Labour-voting men (one in six) – data from the 2019 election is not yet available.

The income gap

After the 2008 financial crash there was a significant decline in trust in politicians and institutions across Europe, but the declines were greater in countries that suffered the worst economic crises. This effect also holds true at the individual level: as incomes rise, so does trust in the government. The income trust gap is widest in countries with higher than average incomes:  the poorest people in rich countries are the least likely to trust the politicians and institutions that govern them.

Socio-economic status and educational attainment have been shown to be linked the levels of political participation and voting choices. Furthermore, levels of trust in democracy and institutions are related to levels of political participation (albeit the direction of causality is difficult to disentangle). People in professional and managerial jobs are far more likely to be engaged in politics and to trust institutions; whereas people in skilled, manual and casual work are more likely to believe that politicians are “self serving” and “working in the interests of the rich and powerful”. There is a clear but complex relationship between socio-economic status and political attitudes, engagement and trust, shaped by both access to education and material resources. This research paper uses personal income as a proxy for occupational group or educational attainment.

Key findings

  • People earning above £30,000 a year are significantly more likely to have high levels of trust in politicians than people on lower incomes (the majority of Britons earn less than £30,000 a year).
  • Fewer than 20 per cent of people who earn between £10,000 – £20,000 have high levels of trust in the UK government, compared to around 30 per cent of those earning £50,000 or above.
  • 50 per cent of respondents earning £60,000 or above felt that politicians tended to keep the promises they made, compared to only 20 per cent of those earning between £10,000 – £20,000.
  • People with incomes of £50,000 or above were substantially more likely to trust institutions compared to lower income groups. The income trust gap was greatest for the courts and the police; there was a smaller income effect on trust in local councils.
  • Figure 3 below shows the views of people on whether democracy in the UK is working well. Those with an income between £50,000 – £60,000 were twice as likely to believe that democracy was working well than people earning between £10,000 – £20,000.

Source: John Smith Centre, The Income Gap: low income and trust, 2020

  • Amongst those on low incomes (under £20,000) the highest levels of trust were in the police, the courts and the BBC; lowest levels were in politicians, the print media and the UK government; councils fell in the middle of the range


The findings of the ‘trilogy on trust’ reports provide a fascinating insight into the UK public opinion on politicians and institutions, including some significant variations between different groups. Public trust is of more than academic interest: it is important for the functioning of society, the economy and public services. As the bestselling American author and businessman, Stephen Covey said:

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

Scepticism about politicians and institutions is healthy, but cynicism weakens the “glue” and makes it difficult for public services and political life to function effectively. It is clear than many in the UK are distrustful of political leaders and public authorities. The John Smith Centre hopes that its research stimulates debate as to why trust is so low and what can be done about it.

The gap in trust should be of concern to the government as it grapples with the response to the Covid-19 health pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis. Where levels of trust are lower, people are more likely to expect laws to be broken or disobeyed. It may be harder for public policy to work as intended. Guidance may not be followed and laws may not be complied with. This creates both a credibility problem and a practical enforcement problem for the government, police and local authorities. Trust is also integral to effective communications; communications professionals may need to adapt communications strategies, messaging and channels to overcome the trust gap in different sections of the population.

Although there is evidence that local government is consistently better trusted than central government, there is no room for complacency as trust in local government overall has hovered between only 40-50 per cent for most of the last decade. On the positive side, there is no evidence of a significant downward trend, but behind the headline data there may be significant variations in levels of trust amongst different groups within the community. Local councils should be aware of this context to policy making and the implementation of local initiatives.

The John Smith Centre survey provides only limited data on trust in local councils. For instance, councillors were not mentioned specifically, instead participants were asked about trust in “elected politicians” – it is unclear whether participants had councillors in mind when they answered. Clearly it is possible that trust in local authorities varies between different places but the survey sample was presumably too small to yield useful geographical information on this. Local authorities who wish to gain a better understanding about residents’ levels of trust may wish to include suitable questions in their own residents’ opinion surveys.