Motes of trust

The scandal over MPs' expenses may have little impact on voter numbers, says an expert on the public's faith in politics

May 28, 2009

The MPs' expenses debacle is unlikely to seriously damage voter turnout in the next general election, according to a Brunel University politics professor.

Justin Fisher, director of the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel, says that while the expenses claims have knocked many voters' confidence in politicians, the scandal is likely to affect election results more than numbers voting.

"There is an issue with voter disengagement, but that has been amplified by the lack of real competition in the last few general elections. The Conservatives were not an effective opposition then, which is no longer the case. I would expect turnout to rise next year," Professor Fisher said. The expenses disaster would turn some people off politics, but may turn others on, he suggested. "It's a gift for any candidate fighting an incumbent MP - it may actually stimulate political engagement."

Professor Fisher believes the scandal has arisen because of a culture in which expenses are seen as a substitute for a pay rise. "I'm not trying to justify these claims, but I do think MPs are underpaid," he said. "Their salaries are lower than those in many other professions - lower than that of the average British university professor, for example." He added: "Some of the accusations against the MPs are fair, but not all MPs are on the take. When we're required to work away from home we require a reasonable standard of accommodation, and MPs are no different."

Professor Fisher's research interests include citizens' trust in public and political institutions, party finance and constitutional reform. With colleagues at University College London, he has researched what makes people trust politicians. They found that people trust politicians most if they do what they say they're going to do.

"People will accept a politician having a moat if it's clear what actions he or she is going to take," the professor said. In a recent paper, he and his colleagues pointed out that trust is usually treated by academics as a single theoretical concept - "that citizens' trust mechanisms are the same for trusting Parliament, the Prime Minister, or the European Union", they said. But people trust different institutions in different ways and at different times, they suggested. Their research revealed that Conservative and Labour supporters showed more "deliberative trust" - they trust parties that are open about what policies they are proposing and that have fulfilled past election promises. Liberal Democrat supporters showed more "associative trust" - they trust parties whose platforms were supported by citizens from different backgrounds and politicians who were able to consider multiple sides of the same issue.

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