Political distrust – the lesson from Canada

“This election is all about trust” Conservative leader Michael Howard said at a recent press conference. He presumably thinks trust is a vote-winning issue for the Conservatives, but just how does political distrust affect the way people vote? Some insight comes from a study by Eric Belanger and Richard Nadeau that used data from the 1984, 1988 and 1993 Canadian elections – a period in which people’s trust in politics dropped steadily.

Before each election, participants indicated their trust by agreeing, or not, with statements like “We can trust the government in Ottawa to do what is right” and “People running the government are a little crooked”.

Results from the ’84 and ’88 elections provide good news for the Lib Dems here in the UK. Canadians who were distrustful were more likely to vote for Canada’s third party – the New Democratic Party – at the expense of the two main parties. “…third parties can be thought of as channels used by voters to voice popular disenchantment with representative government and ‘politics as usual'”, the researchers said.

It also makes a difference whether a party exploits the trust issue as the Conservatives are doing in the current UK election. In the ’93 Canadian election, two new parties entered the fray, one of which made trust a central campaign issue – and in that election it was these newer parties who benefited most from a voter’s political distrust. “…parties’ choice of campaign strategies and rhetoric are important” the researchers said.

What about voter apathy? Belanger and Nadeau estimated that if trust hadn’t fallen from 1984 onwards, then turn out would only have been 1-2 per cent higher. And each election would also have seen the same winning party. “Declining levels of trust affected the electoral participation”, the researchers said “but in a less dramatic way than one would expect”.

Belanger, E. & Nadeau, R. (2005). Political trust and the vote in multiparty elections: The Canadian case. European Journal of Political Research, 44, 121-146.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.