Why It's OK to Be Bliar: Do Voters Really Want Politicians They Can Trust? the Success of Harold Wilson, Richard "Tricky Dicky" Nixon, Jacques Chirac and Others Suggests Not

By O'Hara, Kieron | New Statesman (1996), September 8, 2003 | Go to article overview

Why It's OK to Be Bliar: Do Voters Really Want Politicians They Can Trust? the Success of Harold Wilson, Richard "Tricky Dicky" Nixon, Jacques Chirac and Others Suggests Not


O'Hara, Kieron, New Statesman (1996)


On one thing all the papers, whatever their political loyalties, seem agreed: the Kelly affair has damaged public trust in Tony Blair. A YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph on 25 July found Blair to be less trusted than either Iain Duncan Smith or Charles Kennedy. An ICM poll in the Guardian on 19 August reported that only 6 per cent of voters trusted the government more than the BBC to tell the truth.

Conventional wisdom states that the voters' trust is essential in a democracy. Trust is the new economic competence. In the broadsheets, it is now mentioned twice as often--and, in some papers, three times as often--as it was four years ago. And it is better to be trusted than not trusted; we can agree on that. Nobody likes not to be believed.

But before he telephones for the removal men, Blair should ask himself two questions. Is he really losing voters' trust? And would it matter if he was?

On the first question, the polls are not quite as clear-cut as they might first seem. The two polls quoted in the first paragraph were taken a month apart. Each detected a fall in trust, yet the level of trust in the second poll was pretty much the same as in the first.

From what level of trust is Blair supposed to be falling? After all, he became Labour Party leader in 1994, and very quickly established a reputation as a ruthless and effective manager of the media. After the experiences of Neil Kinnock and John Major with the British press, many people sympathised with his approach.

Nevertheless, much of the argument of the 1997 election campaign focused on what Blair, once in office, would actually do. Would he be radical? Would he be socialist? Would he be a de facto Tory? Many inside the Labour Party distrusted him as much as those outside did.

Blair surfed to his first great landslide in 1997 on a wave of goodwill--but not trust. It was a mere two days into his premiership when the Economist accused him of "calculated dishonesty".

New Labour has always had the reputation of being more concerned with appearances than actuality. There is nothing new in what the Hutton inquiry has exposed about the Prime Minister's inner circle and its obsession with artful selection and presentation of information.

Yet Blair has always been written about as a man whose success is explained by the public's trust, and whose demise will be preceded by its loss. Such reports are no doubt influenced by his "hey, I'm a straight kind of guy" presentation of himself. But that does not make them accurate. Critics foresaw the toppling of Blair's government when a speech to the Women's Institute in June 2000 went badly wrong and he was heckled and given a slow handclap. This disaster generated column-inches galore--but is totally forgotten today.

In short, if Blair looks back through his scrapbook, he will find that he cannot be losing voters' trust, because he never had much of it to start with. That may not comfort him. But it brings us to the second question. Does the lack of trust matter?

A few weeks ago, Jeremy Vine's BBC Radio 2 programme ran a poll to find Britain's most honest politician. The winner was William Hague. Yet honest Hague was trounced by slippery Blair in 2001.

Hague's predecessor, John Major, who by many accounts was infuriated by Blair's false piety and naked opportunism, was generally agreed to be one of the nicest and most straightforward occupants of 10 Downing Street in living memory (at least before the revelations of his affair with Edwina Currie). Yet nice Major was walloped by slithery Blair in 1997.

Not that Major didn't have his own problems. In the New Statesman in 1991, the then political editor, Sarah Baxter, suggested that Major was "squandering his most precious asset--trust". Six months later, Major beat Kinnock.

In fact, if Blair looks back even further, he will find that trust seems to have very little relevance to winning elections.

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