31 March 2010

Would you trust a politician?

Colchester Campus

Attitudes towards politicians and their level of honesty and integrity have changed surprisingly little despite the high profile MPs' expenses scandal of May 2009. That's according to a new study undertaken by political researchers at the University of Essex and Royal Holloway, University of London, who say that the results suggest that most members of the public have simply got used to the idea of wrong-doing by politicians.

The research, carried out by Dr Sarah Birch and Dr Nicholas Allen, involved a survey of more than 1000 people before the scandal broke in the Daily Telegraph last year and then a follow-up survey of the same people six months later. Participants in the study were asked a range of questions about the overall standards of honesty and integrity of politicians today. At both points in time, respondents had a generally unfavourable view of politicians: 65.9 per cent believed standards were ‘somewhat low’ or ‘very low’ in the first survey compared with 67.0 per cent who held the same view a few months later.

In both surveys, respondents were also asked to say using a score of 0-10 how much of a problem they thought the misuse of official expenses and allowances was. Before the expenses scandal, the average score was 8.82. Afterwards, it was actually slightly less, 8.13, reinforcing the message that, while most people are generally distrustful of politicians, the well-publicised scandal has not altered people's attitudes that much.

This point was also borne out by responses to a question that asked whether people had changed their minds about the honesty of British politicians in the wake of the expenses scandal. Over half claimed that the expenses scandal did not affect their opinion of MPs’ integrity one way or another. Some 17.5 per cent said that they thought most MPs were honest and trustworthy before the scandal and still thought most MPs were honest and trustworthy. But a far larger proportion, 38.9 per cent, said they thought that most MPs were dishonest and untrustworthy before the scandal and that they still thought most MPs were dishonest and untrustworthy.

Commenting on the findings, Sarah Birch from the Department of Government at Essex said: 'What was most surprising was that people’s overall general concern about misconduct appears to have declined between our two surveys. This may be due to the fact that the British public has become inured to wrong-doing in the wake of the expenses scandal. Alternatively, it may be that the allegations which had already leaked out before full details of MPs’ expenses were published in the Daily Telegraph had already heightened sensitivity to this issue, whereas by the time of the second part of the survey, the public’s concerns had turned to other things."

The same participants will be surveyed again next month as part of the ongoing research project.

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