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2015 Edelman Trust Barometer panel in London - (l-r): Ed Williams, Sir John Sawers and Richard Edelman

2015 Edelman Trust Barometer panel in London - (l-r): Ed Williams, Sir John Sawers and Richard Edelman

The UK: We’re Drifting in the Doldrums

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A version of this post initially appeared on EdelmanEditions.com

Here in the UK, there’s an election looming and we’ve been climbing out of the worst financial crisis in living memory, but there’s bad news for our business and political leaders: trust is running very thin on the ground.

Since the financial crisis began, consumers and voters have been losing belief in the ability of politicians and businessmen to do the right thing. Last year was, compared to recent lows, fairly scandal free. But Edelman’s latest survey of trust shows that we are all still desperate for honesty and fair play from those who most affect our lives.

Frankly, trust is just stuck in the doldrums.

The British people told the Edelman Trust Barometer: if people don’t play fair by us, we don’t want them.

We run the Trust Barometer – a global survey of 33,000 people in 27 countries and have done so for the last 15 years. In the UK, we’ve been asking the general public and a key group interested in policy and news, how much we all believe that government, business, media and NGOs will do the right thing – we’ve got pretty good at anticipating how people will react year by year.

But even we have been taken aback by how little credit our leaders have got for what was, on the face of it, a better year for Britain than most.

The headlines are:

  • Trust in government is flatlining as frustration grows with what people see as a failure of politicians to be honest with UK citizens
  • Business has lost trust because we don’t think companies are playing fair, especially on their attitude to paying appropriate levels of tax or on how much bosses pay themselves
  • Media trust fell back again because the public still are concerned about the underlying motivations of newspapers
  • NGOs are now behaving so much like businesses that they are being judged in the same way and found wanting, with a striking 16 percentage point fall in trust levels.

All in all, the Barometer has fallen sharply. The average level of trust in the UK’s four sectors is 46 percent, down from 52 percent last year, only just above countries such as Russia. Even stripping out the effect of NGOs, we still fall firmly into a category of nation that the Barometer describes as “distrusters.” By that they mean the majority of people sampled distrust the institutions that serve them.

The fact is, we have been losing faith in our leaders for so long only a radical rethink is likely to shift things. There is now a real chance that we are stuck in a rut going nowhere fast.

In politics, even the rise of Nigel Farage has shown its limits – perhaps his popularity is more about novelty than substance? While six out of 10 citizens think he speaks his mind, they make a clear distinction with whether he is actually being honest in what he says, which only three in 10 believe.

Boris Johnson remains Britain’s most trusted mainstream politician, but his score has dropped from 43 percent to 39 percent. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband isn’t even trusted by as many people as those who say they trust his party: 29 percent compared to 36 percent.

The findings are clear: politicians have not earned the right to pontificate because they are not yet trusted to communicate honestly. What is striking is that this overshadows even the benefits of an improving economy.

At the beginning of a long election campaign, that is a bad sign for the political elite.

This year, we asked what would make people more trusting in business and the answers weren’t just about corporate and social responsibility or even consistent quality of products and services.

No, it was about fair play. Fair play, in the form of two statements: “Pay the expected levels of tax” and “Behave responsibly.”

For the media, where overall trust fell from 41 percent to 38 percent, the focus of attention in 2014 was not so much on the actual sins of phone hacking and corruption as on why those sins were committed, as played out at the Old Bailey and in other courtrooms. Over a quarter said their trust had fallen in the last year and blamed it on issues to do with the mindset of those in charge. They cited the wrong motivation for editorial decisions – commercial rather than public interest – or corruption or a lack of adequate regulation.

It is clear from our findings that the key thing for politicians, business leaders and the media is that building trust is the prerequisite for everything else. People don’t vote for politicians they don’t trust; they don’t buy from brands they don’t trust and they think a media industry they don’t trust still has to earn its privileged status by acting responsibly.

But there is some positive news. As a place to base your business Britain is very well regarded, alongside Germany and Switzerland and more popular than the U.S. or France. We now need to figure out how we can make the most of the great assets we have in the country: a well-functioning democracy, a fair, transparent legal system the envy of the world, a free press that continues to hold power to account, a thriving business environment and highly effective NGOs. We are doing something right, and other people around the world recognize it and as a result trust UK PLC – of that we can be proud.

If you’d like to read more about the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer, click here.

Ed Williams is CEO of Edelman UK.

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