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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2005, 12:25 GMT
Honest Politics

Transcript of Part 1

The following is an original script - the version as broadcast may vary.

In this series of programmes I'm going to look at the often uneasy relationship between reality and perception in politics and government. I'll be looking at whether governments have much power any more - or whether its all gone to global markets, or to Brussels. And I'll be looking at how profound, lasting change really happens.

But I want to start in this programme with what may be the biggest question in any democracy, the question of who you can trust - to govern you, to make your laws, to spend your taxes, or decide on matters of peace and war?

In the distant past many of the world's greatest political thinkers - like Confucius in China and Aristotle in Greece - saw trust as ruler's greatest asset, more important even than money and armies. And for over a decade trust has been the most contentious battleground in British politics.

It's possible precisely to date the moment when it moved centre stage. It was during the 1992 election campaign that the Tories, helped by Saatchi and Saatchi, launched a barrage of posters proclaiming ?You can't trust Labour' - and a good slice of swing voters concluded that on reflection the posters were probably right.

Trust won the election for the Tories. But trust is a slippery thing. Its hard to win and easy to lose.

The Conservatives learned this the hard way. Within months of being re-elected Major's government had been humiliatingly forced out of the exchange rate mechanism and was never again trusted by the public to run the economy. Worse was to follow as successive candals erupted with brown envelopes stuffed with cash and Cabinet ministers with their pants down - and the mid 90s trust in the government had slumped to a disastrous new low.

The lessons weren't lost on Labour. I was involved in the preparation for the 97 election and then worked in government after it, and saw at first hand how concerned its leaders were to persuade the public that they could be trusted. That didn't just mean making reassuring noises on defence and the economy, and promising that there'd be no tolerance of misbehaving ministers.

It also meant an end to grand promises. Whereas in the past parties usually overpromised and underdelivered Labour was determined to do the opposite and honed a programme based around five detailed and deliberately modest promises - smaller class sizes, shorter waiting lists, faster youth justice, more jobs for young people and no increase in income tax.

The very modesty of the promises was meant to show that Labour was serious. And if it underpromised but overdelivered once in power the publics trust would be guaranteed.

Did it work? Well Labour did win re-election - twice. But where trust is concerned it's hardly been a smooth ride. It's not just the unanswered questions about war in Iraq, and the non-existent WMD.

Labours bigger problem has been a public perception that there is so much spin and media manipulation that they can't know what to believe.

Some cynicism is nothing new. When Harold Macmillan was asked what was the collective noun for heads of government, he replied: a ?lack' of principals.

But the cynicism seems to run deeper now. One annoyed member of the public from Stockport spoke for many: ?Everything - there's spin on it. Even when you don't think it's got spin, its got spin on it.'

The result is a strangely upside down world that no one predicted. At the time of the 2001 election most independent commentators accepted that Labour's five pledges had been met. But a majority of the public were convinced that they hadn't been. And not long ago a MORI poll asked people if they believed that the numbers of doctors and nurses and teachers had gone up, that deaths from heart or cancer disease had gone down and that fewer people were being injured on the roads. All were uncontroversial - and true. But in each case a majority of the public believed that they weren't. No wonder another Tory poster, this time for the 2005 election, tried to exploit the public mood. ?If he's prepared to lie to take us to war' it warned ?he's prepared to lie to win an election.'

When it came to power the governments greatest fear was that its policies would fail. But today it's just as frightened that even if its policies succeed, the public won't believe it.

The grim conclusion for many ministers is that whatever they do they're unlikely to be believed and I have heard more than a few wishing in private that they had been a bit nicer to teachers and doctors, with less talk of ?scars on my back' and more acknowledgement that perhaps they deserved most of the credit for better literacy or faster operations.

So how did we get here? What has caused declining trust? And can anything be done about it?

Its not to find explanations. Some ascribe the crisis of trust to grand historical forces.

We're more individualistic, less deferential. The days when we would meekly doff our caps to ministers - or for that matter bishops and business leaders - are long gone.

There's some truth in this. But it doesn't explain at all why trust in the army, doctors, teachers and the police remain high.

Others put declining trust down to disengagement - we've simply turned off anything to do with the public realm. But again this doesn't quite stack up since people are as active in their communities as ever and as likely to volunteer - like the 400,000 people who serve as school governors.

Perhaps its just that there is so much more information available. As Onora O'Neil put it in her Reith Lectures ?how can we tell which claims and counterclaims, reports and supposed facts are trustworthy when so much information swirls around us?. But again this doesn't explain why some institutions - like the BBC - are just as trusted as they were a generation ago.

Or perhaps we expect too much of government, and so are condemned to disappointment. But most surveys find that people are quite realistic about government's ability to deliver.

Perhaps a more educated public is simply bound to be more sceptical, less likely to assume that our rulers know more than we do. Again, plausible. But wrong. It turns out that having more education is associated with more trust not less, and over time levels of political trust have fallen fastest amongst the least educated.

Another set of explanations places the blame squarely on the media. As John Lloyd put it: ?Foreigners who observe the British media and know the country remark on the matter constantly. They see a media which is polemically extreme, rhetorically bitter and savagely dismissive.' Anthony Sampson in his last anatomy of Britain, published just before he died earlier this year, described the media as the new aristocracy, unaccountable and out of control.

The public certainly accept some of this explanation. Incredibly only 7% trust tabloid journalists to tell the truth, far less than trust government ministers, let alone broadcast journalists or teachers.

There's even hard evidence that the media may be to blame can be found in the surveys showing that people rate their local public services far better than they rate public services as a whole which many assume are going to the dogs - the most plausible explanation for which is that national media are giving a pretty distorted view of what's really going on.

Others give a diametrically opposite answer. They see the villains of the story as the spin doctors and advisers, cynical ministers and ruthless party hacks - the world portrayed by satirical programmes like the Thick of It and Bird and Fortune.

In my experience working in parliament and in Downing St this picture of all powerful spin doctors is more fantasy than real, and anyway the boring truth is that ministers spend far more time on the mundane practicalities of getting policies to work than they do on PR.

It's true that spin doctors have become much more visible in recent years - they're pretty skilled at keeping in the public eye. But because many journalists deal with them day to day they've tended greatly to exaggerate their power relative to, say, permanent secretaries or middle ranking ministers.

This was a point made recently by David Yelland former editor of the Sun, of all people, when he spoke in glowing terms of his admiration for the integrity of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Yet there's no doubt that politicians can be their own worst enemies - claiming credit for every success, avoiding blame for every failure.

This government has been particularly prone at times to trumpet the success of pilots that have barely started, repackaging and reannouncing the same policies and the send spending commitments - none of which is exactly healthy for trust. And precisely because its early pledges were more modest than public expectations, the government has at times been tempted to fill the gap with overinflated rhetoric, or as a new MORI survey shows, to overspin official statistics to such an extent that even successes come to look like failures.

The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once wrote that politics is ?the art of swallowing toads without making a face', and perhaps that's even truer in a less ideological age when politicians are more concerned about what works than they are about convictions, and so change direction more often.

So does it matter? Or is it healthy to take a jaundiced view of politicians, like Harold Evans who told his journalists always to keep in mind when interviewing politicians ?why is this bastard lying to me?'

Well I think that it does matter. The American writer Derek Bok put it well. ?Whatever matters to human beings' he wrote ? trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives - when it is damaged the community as a whole suffers; when it is destroyed societies falter and collapse.'

More prosaically if politicians aren't trusted they're unlikely to be able to deal with big and difficult issues - like pensions or climate change.

And if you start from the presumption that every politician is a crook the odd effect is that there ends up being little incentive for politicians not to be crooks.

Fortunately there is nothing inevitable about any of this. The more I've looked at what's happened to governments, professions, banks - indeed all the institutions that care about being trusted - the more I've been struck that the real story is much simpler.

Whether you're trusted or not is much better explained by what you do and how you do it. Follow a few simple rules and you get it. Ignore them and you don't.

Rule one is that you have to do your job well. So if you're a government and the economy goes awry or crime rockets don't be surprised if you lose trust. When the judiciary were seen to send a string of innocent people to prison they lost trust, as did pension companies when they sold people dud pensions.

Rule two is: try to be honest, and, if you possibly can, serve a public or moral interest rather than just a private or partisan one. Its no coincidence that voluntary organisations remain far more trusted than businesses or governments, and generally arms length bodies are trusted more than overtly political ones.

Rule three: talk to people. Generally people trust people and organisations they can see and understand, which is why frontline professionals have retained trust far more than the organisations they work for. It's also why Blair was right to put himself in the firing line - the ?masochism strategy' - during the last election.

Rule four, when things go wrong, and they do, say sorry quickly. Don't wait for an apology to be forced out of you. Just imagine what might have happened if Mrs Thatcher had ditched the poll tax when it became clear to everyone else that it was a disaster. Obviously you can't say sorry all the time - ?whoops I did it again' isn't such a good slogan. But a bit of contrition goes a very long way.

None of these rules is very complicated, though they are particularly difficult for governments to do. But those institutions that have done these things have retained or increased their trust, while those that haven't have lost it.

Look for example at food. When John Gummer's daughter was filmed eating a hamburger and scientists appeared to deny that there was anything wrong with British beef huge damage was done to governments credibility. But many years of careful work by the Food Standards Agency, using fairly open methods of decision making, acknowledging ambiguities and seeking the strongest possible basis of evidence on which to base decisions has, against the odds, steadily restored public trust.

Or look at an even clearer example from America. In the mid 1970s after the disasters of the Vietnam war trust in the US Army had hit rock bottom. Only 20 percent of 18 to 29 year olds expressed confidence in the people who ran the military. A generation later however, at the beginning of this decade the number had shot up to 75%, the result of a concerted strategy to professionalise the army, to stop racism and discrimination and a very active programme of communication.

Of course these gains are probably now being lost. Abu Ghraib and the nightly news from Baghdad is unlikely to be doing much for army recruitment in Des Moines and Peoria.

But the moral is clear. Trust can be built even from a very low base so long as the right things are done and over a long enough period. And my guess is that this government could be more trusted in five years time than it is today.

So forget the speculation about systemic crisis or grand historical trends. These can be convenient excuses for bosses or politicians who are feeling unloved. The truth is simpler, though no less challenging. Whether you're trusted depends more than anything on what you do and how you do it.

ENDS.




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