Trust in politics, ever notice how it keeps coming up as an issue? In the past few weeks alone, we’ve had two stories that have likely eroded the public’s already limited faith in politicians: the outcome of the Chris Huhne trial, and the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard. These scandals may not have tipped the vote in Eastleigh, but Ukip’s strong performance there can probably be put down to a general dissatisfaction with the three main parties. As one Ukip supporter put it in a recent letter to the Times (£): “On so many issues they are no longer to be trusted…”
The cost to David Cameron of mistrust in politics could be severe. And it’s not just the Ukip effect: a recent YouGov poll found that 23 per cent of the public trust what “leading Labour politicians” say, whereas for “leading Conservative politicians” the figure reduces to 19 per cent. What’s at stake isn’t just votes – although that’s certainly the crux of it – but the possibility of a fair hearing in the first place. Conservatives can rattle on about Europe, immigration, welfare, whatever they like – but if the public doesn’t believe them, then it’s just so many words into the wind.
This is part of the reason why I’ve previously suggested – once, twice and more times – that David Cameron work on restoring trust in politics. And now the advice ought to take on even more urgency. As Paul Goodman suggested a couple of days ago, it’s unlikely that the groping allegations will remain restricted to the Liberal Democrats. Parliament may not quite burn down from the media and public opprobrium that will follow, but it’s another few shot-glasses of fuel for the flames. Fire-fighters ought to be in place.
Here, David Cameron has some strengths. He is, by many polls, more trusted than either his own party or than Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. And he has shown before – particularly in the wake of the expenses scandal – that he can respond swiftly and sympathetically to public concerns. Indeed, the problem is not so much that Mr Cameron is an imperfect tribune for this message, but that he is an inconsistent one. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, he used to talk about trust in politics fairly regularly, but now that has dwindled to naught. The Government’s very welcome transparency drive has become the start and end of the matter.
So, what does all this mean in practice? Here are four quick, preliminary suggestions to set things rolling:
- A war on Parliamentary perks. This was a war that Mr Cameron declared himself, in a speech delivered in February 2010. But the gains since have been limited. Food and drink is still subsidised all the way to MPs’ mouths; the public would still balk at some of the expenses claims that are made and allowed. And while the Prime Minister cannot prevent all this by himself, he can still speak out against it.
- A proper recall mechanism. Again, this was a key part of Mr Cameron’s offering in 2010 – but the reality has fallen short of the ideal. Not only has the recall bill been held up in the traffic between Parliament and No.10, but parts of it have fallen off along the way. Zac Goldsmith is right about this: the current policy is not as decentralised as it might be.
- Plain speaking. It shouldn’t be left to journalists to explain the difference between the debt and the deficit, while the Government ties the two together and wraps them up with bad “credit card” analogies. What I’d like to see – although it’s probably a prescription too far – is the Tories producing clear fact-sheets to explain the concepts behind their policies. After all, who are voters more likely to trust? The politicians who rely on a secret lexicon, or the ones who try to open it out for all to understand?
- More plain speaking. With his “Cameron Direct” meetings – now called “PM Direct” – David Cameron has done much to initiate a straightforward, and welcome, conversation with the public. But, strangely enough, he has been overtaken on this track by The Least Trusted Man in World Politics™, Nick Clegg, with his weekly radio phone-ins. This is the sort of innovation that the Prime Minister should consider, rather than spending so much time preparing for the froth and fury of PMQs.
Should you have any other suggestions, please mention them in the comments section, below. If Mr Cameron can make it to the next election – this morning, Ladbrokes have odds of 5/1 that he will be deposed as Prime Minister this year – then it should be as Honest Dave.