We can't demand trust, we must earn it

Labour party conference - The government's problems are not just presentational. It lacks emotional

The government's midterm trough is down to the issue of trust, and not just on Iraq. This is the message of Labour's by-election defeat in Brent East. As for national opinion polls, our lead at this point in the political cycle is virtually unprecedented, but this is not enough.

As a Labour government, we set ourselves high standards. To win elections - yes - but for a purpose: to change the parameters of British politics, building a new social consensus around progressive values. We need not just consent at the ballot box, but the active engagement of people between elections. Fighting inequality depends on active communities and engaged citizens. Lack of trust undermines the potential for partnership because it leads to abstention and disengagement.

Let me debunk a few myths.

It is not true that trust has disappeared from modern society. In her Reith lectures, Onora O'Neill highlighted the paradox that people say trust is declining yet demonstrate trust by drinking tap water, flying in planes and using complex gadgets whose inner workings baffle them. People trust in their private relationships, those they love and need. But it is harder to put trust in institutions than in personal relationships.

Second, while it is true that election turnouts are depressingly low, the British Social Attitudes survey shows interest in politics remains high, so the raw material for democratic engagement still exists. And, third, although young people are the least engaged, political interest and social trust do rise with age (even among the Thatcher generation).

Low trust in national politicians is not a myth, however, and is evident across the developed world. In Britain, the press, big business and the unions join politicians in the "low trust" category. But trust in other institutions and professions - the police, doctors, teachers and broadcast media - has been relatively high and stable over recent decades.

Lack of trust in central government is real. We cannot simply complain "it's not fair" - new Labour has made mistakes. We are the most feminist administration ever but we have not changed this country's outdated, macho political culture. The government often displays poor emotional intelligence and lack of empathy with those threatened by change.

The mea culpa is already documented. We have admitted that we were overzealous in managing the media: we made repeat announcements of the same initiatives; we favoured some journalists and marginalised others; we briefed anonymously; we were insufficiently respectful to parliament.

Our language has become excessively technocratic, focusing on the processes of change rather than the values that motivate us. Candour, flexibility and kindness are the building blocks of trust.

Rebuilding trust will take time and conviction that change is necessary. Just saying sorry now and doing nothing different will not do. This requires us to be more candid and open about what we are trying to achieve and why. It means not overpromising; not just giving the best statistic while holding back the less good. It means acknowledging when initiatives don't work - people understand that some things work, some don't. A culture of candour in government will in time engender trust. This has to be a change of substance, not of presentation.

We all know that splits damage administrations. But the fear of perceived party splits should not suppress candid debate. The press has a responsibility to reflect the substance of debate, rather than editorialising about divisions and personalities.

The sense of independence and irreverence embedded in British culture is something to celebrate, and journalists are rightly at the sceptical end of the human spectrum. But cynicism is corrosive for the individual as much as society. The welcome demise of deference should not mean every political motive is deemed selfish and suspicious, every word false and every action mistaken.

Two very different ideas of trust are at play in Britain. We are a nation divided, both between rich and poor and also between the culture of the Westminster village and the aspirations of the rest of the country; between what my south London constituents refer to as "up there" and "down here".

The first kind of trust is about individual truth-telling; about whether people believe what a person says is factually accurate. The Westminster village - where the press is a significant player - is obsessed with this kind of trust. The focus is purely internal: on personalities, on political positioning, on decoding briefings, on attributing motives. This is "institutional narcissism", and that it keeps most ministers honest is an incidental benefit. But the public is not particularly interested in the details of political pronouncements.

The second kind of trust is about institutional performance and reliability; about actions, not words; about the links between public services, public space and personal welfare; about quality of life. People care whether they can rely on key public services in their neighbourhoods to meet very specific needs, such as providing more books in schools, emptying their bins, providing more activities for young people and keeping their parks and streets clean and safe. This trust is the glue of local social cohesion.

The difference between these two conceptions of trust explains the discrepancy between "opinion polls" and "user surveys". In education, for instance, there is a significant gap between what an average member of the public (as informed by the press) thinks about the services provided and how an average service user rates them (as informed by their own experience). From nursery to university, the average percentage of respondents ranking the services as "good" or "very good" is 25 points higher among users.

Every week, I hear my constituents talk about trust. Alastair Campbell, Andrew Gilligan and Lord Hutton barely register. Instead, the talk is about what is being done well or badly in their community; their hopes and fears. When asked about trust, my constituents have specific questions: "Is it OK to walk home at night here?"; "How quickly can I get an appointment with my GP?"; "Will my kids do well at school?". This is how people connect with politics. Trust in this sense is resilient to nihilistic headlines. Across Britain, in their neighbourhoods and in their own lives, people broadly support what they understand we are trying to do. This explains why Labour is still ahead in national polls.

The immediate challenge for new Labour is to be more open and more daring, sharing policy debates as widely as possible and not just presenting conclusions as slickly as possible. We must find new ways to listen and engage directly - with party members and other citizens- so that we bridge the gap between the Westminster village and the rest of the country.

For journalists and politicians alike, the fundamental challenge is to obsess a little less and to listen a lot more.

Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP is Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. She will publish a longer essay on new Labour through the Institute for Public Policy Research in October