Public trust in the political establishment is an integral part of voter choice in any election or referendum, but more crucially it upholds the democratic process. Without some degree of trust in politicians, political parties, experts and the media, state-societal relations would hit a gridlock. Without trust, people would be less likely to vote and less likely to want information about public affairs from sources they see as untrustworthy; and without an informed public, political debate and accountability are lost and democracy cannot function properly. Despite this, figures from the European Barometer show trust in the institutions of democracy is in decline across Western Europe; and while Brexit (and Trump) sparked interest in politics some see this as a short-term gain in the longer, slower decline of faith in democracy.
In light of this, we are comparing young people’s apparent increase in political interest indicated by the surge in youth turnout for the EU referendum and the 2017 general election with their trust in the establishment, specifically experts and politicians. We are looking at the way in which youth trust in politicians and experts compares with and relates to interest in the election and Brexit. Using survey data collected shortly after the election last week, we explore the broader issue of anti-establishment sentiment to ask, what is the relationship between political interest and trust?
During the EU referendum we published a blog looking at trust in the two campaign sides and found low trust across the board, but millennials in general were found to be more trusting of politicians and political establishments than their elders.
In our most recent survey we focused on the division between trust in ‘ordinary people’, and ‘experts’ and ‘politicians’ in Westminster, so that we can differentiate between the anti-intellectualism surrounding Brexit (see Michael Gove’s ‘Britain has had enough of experts’) and distrust in politicians or experts specifically. The British Election Study also distinguished between ordinary people and experts in a panel study carried out between February 2014 and December 2016, before the election was announced. The results show a clear pattern by age groups; the younger you are the more likely you are to trust experts over ordinary people, see Table 1.
Survey data, from the WISERD Young People and Brexit project collected shortly after the election on the 8th June, shows an 8% increase in ‘trust in the wisdom of ordinary people’ among 18-24 year olds, a small move away from trusting experts, see Table 2 below. It also shows a slight decline for ‘trust in the wisdom of ordinary people’ among the over 65s (-3%), a small move towards trusting experts more. However, despite these small differences the same pattern remains, young people are more trusting of experts than any other age group.
Our data shows young people are also more likely than any other age group to trust that ‘politicians will put the interests of the country ahead of their party’, see Table 3 below. Fewer young people trust politicians than trust experts, with 62% of young people trusting experts over ordinary people and only 38% trusting politicians. Despite this, overall the young are the most trusting of all age groups.
So, does this high(er) level of trust among young people have any relationship with interest in Brexit and the 2017 General Election? To find out, we started by looking at political interest between age groups. As Table 4 below shows, interest is high across the board. The biggest difference between age groups is interest in the general election where a comparative low percentage of over 65s are interested in GE17 (77%) and a comparatively (and generally) high percentage of 25-34 year olds are interested in GE17 (89%).
We then looked at the results in Table 4 against trust in experts and politicians for 18-24 year olds only. The major finding is that there is no significant relationship between trust and political interest; interest remains high among 18-24 year olds regardless of trust and regardless of the event in question. In terms of trust in experts, 94% of ‘trusting’ young people were interested in Brexit compared with 80% of ‘untrusting’ young people, only 14% difference; and 94% of trusting young people were interested in GE17 compared with 89% of untrusting young people; just 5% difference. In terms of trust in politicians the relationship was even less notable with only 2% differencebetween ‘trusting’ and ‘untrusting’ young people in terms of an interest in Brexit and only 1% difference in interest in the GE17.
To conclude, there are two messages coming out of this data. Firstly, young people in the UK are comparatively highly trusting and interested as an age group; and while they are more trusting of experts than politicians, they are more trusting than their elders of both. They are also highly interested in the two key political events under study with only small differences between the age groups and regardless of the event. This is good news for the UK’s democratic processes.
The second message, however, is that there is no significant relationship between interest and trust among young people. So, while the increase in political interest among young people during the EU referendum and GE17 is good news for election turnout in the short-term it is not necessarily good news for the democratic process in the long-term; a potentially concerning message for those who see increased interest as a short-term gain on the route to disaffection with democracy over the long-term.
 All figures, unless stated otherwise, are from this survey conducted by YouGov Plc. The total sample size was 5,095 adults, with fieldwork undertaken between 9th-13th June 2017. The survey was conducted online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all British adults (i.e., aged 18 and over). More information about the survey is available from the authors on request.