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  1. Politics
7 April 2011

Is it better for parliament to be distrusted or irrelevant?

The more the public knows about parliament, the less it seems to like it.

By Tom Mludzinski

Parliament should fear irrelevance more than distrust.

So said Lord Kirkwood, expressing concern that overturning feelings of insignificance among the public is more difficult than a feeling of anger or betrayal. That was the response to Ipsos MORI data used at last week’s annual launch of the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement.

It will be worrying for politicians to see that, in a year where we found record levels of interest in politics and more people saying they know about politics and parliament than ever before, that satisfaction with parliament has fallen to the lowest level recorded.

It seems that, contrary to what we normally find, the more the public gets to know about politics and parliament, the less it likes. While only a quarter (27 per cent) of Britons are satisfied with the way parliament works, what seemed to worry the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Kirkwood is that, for the first time ever, more people have no opinion either way – the metaphorical shrug of the shoulders – about parliament’s performance than were satisfied with it.

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Indeed, only one in three people can correctly name their MP. While this is in part because of the high turnover of MPs following last year’s election, even in 2009, when MPs had been in office for four years, less than half of the public knew the name of their MP.

Is it right that distrust is easier to overcome than irrelevance? MPs are fighting a losing battle in persuading the public that they are trustworthy – since 1983 they have been the least trusted profession along with journalists, with only around one in five trusting politicians to tell the truth.

The important question is not whether it is easier to overcome irrelevance or a lack of trust – but more pertinently, is it better to be distrusted than irrelevant? Here the answer is a resounding yes. The general attitude towards politicians tends to be one of “They’re all the same”, or “I wouldn’t trust any of them”. But often specific politicians are given more trust than “politicians in general” – especially the local MP.

On the other hand, it is far more dangerous for parliament to be deemed insignificant to the public. After all, parliament exists to represent the people and look after their interests. If the public is ignoring parliament and finds it irrelevant, not only will politicians find it harder to increase trust, but they will also find it harder to be effective. For many, MPs are not who they first turn to when they need help (they are often seen as a last resort). And only three in ten members of the public believe that parliament is “working for you and me”. Who then is it working for?

This view that we, the public, are somehow disconnected from the political class is worrying for the future of politics. At the same event as Lord Kirkwood was Hazel Blears (the former Labour communities secretary), who spoke of her concern that people are being turned off wanting to take part in politics. Even community activists who do a great deal of local work do not see elected office as something that is “for them”, she said. This attitude perhaps explains, or indeed is perpetuated by an increase in the number of spads and “policy wonks” in parliament.

Lord Kirkwood is right to fear irrelevance. Parliament and politicians need to be relevant to the public. The reverse is also true. Despite increased interest and knowledge, there is a noticeable lack of any increase in terms of political activity among the general public. It appears to be a vicious circle. The onus is on politicians to break it.

Tom Mludzinski is a research executive at Ipsos MORI, the social research institute.

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