Is trust broken in Britain? At Edelman we have been examining levels of trust that people have in the institutions that matter most for nearly two decades. Never before have we had such a dramatic indication that something fundamentally is going wrong.
It isn’t that trust is falling dramatically, or even falling at all. In fact, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer for 2016, the world’s most comprehensive and respected survey of trust, records that it is rising. In each of the four institutions we measure – government, business, media and NGOs – the general population say they have more trust in them to “do the right thing” than last year. The rises are modest, but they are across the board.
So it isn’t the results that cause me concern, but the details behind them. As we looked more closely at this year’s findings a tale of two Britains slowly revealed itself.
On the one hand, there are those who have survived and experienced improvements since the financial crisis and the austerity that followed it. On the other, there are those who find themselves in low income households. The trust levels between these two groups vary dramatically. We are now seeing a very distinctive “trust gap”.
The 2016 results already told us that the top 11% of UK society, who we call Informed Publics – people with degrees, upper-quartile incomes and self-declared interest in politics and media – were more trusting in all institutions. The Trust Barometer’s Index for the UK recorded a trust gap of 17 percentage points between the Informed Publics at 57 and the rest at 40 out of 100. That was the biggest gap we have ever recorded.
People trust those they think are doing a good job, who they like, who they think have their interests at heart. So it matters, especially to businesses, because if people trust you, they will buy your products, and pay more, as well as recommend you to their friends and family.
The trust gap is even more pronounced when you consider the attitudes of the top 1%, with those in the poorest households. Or put it another way, people earning more than £100k with £650k of non-property assets against those who have less than £15,000 coming in per household.
What we discovered was quite stark. While the trust gaps for NGOs and media were high at 10 and 12 percentage points respectively, when it came to trust in government, the gap widened dramatically to 28 points (54% for the rich group compared to 26% for the poorer) and for business, even further to 32 points (67% vs 35%).
Worse still was the inequality of hope: only 10% of the poorest thought they would be better off at the end of 2016; while on the other hand just 10% of the richest thought they would be worse off in 12 months’ time.
We also found the divergence when it came to attitudes to the biggest policy question we face – in or out of Europe. If you are rich, you want to stay, if you are a low income bracket you want to leave.
This was our Tale of Two Britains. For the top, it feels like the best of times; for the bottom, the worst of times. It’s not yet clear what this means for society, but the obvious risk is that this trust gap is filled by populist political voices or malign economic forces such as deflation.
So what can be done?
There are signs of hope and most of them rest with the business community. Eight in 10 of our respondents told us they believed companies can play a role in solving societal problems without sacrificing profitability. Indeed, they want them to do just that. The quickest way to rebuild trust in business is for companies to make sure they are paying expected levels of tax and playing their part in improving the common good.
It’s a harder task for politicians. Though policy commitments around National Living Wage, tearing down the worst housing estates and creating economic centres outside of London are clearly seeking to address these issues. But some of the most pressing concerns expressed in the Trust Barometer are proving intractable: reducing unemployment, and solving immigration and the problems of refugees cannot be achieved overnight and they dominate the concerns of the less well-off members of society.
But there is one area where they could rebuild trust quickly: communicate honestly. At the moment, people believe they are not getting the full picture from their elected officials – of all parties – and they don’t like it. Our research shows that not a single political leader gets more than a third of the public saying they represent someone like me.
In five years we have seen the trust gap become a chasm. Continue that trajectory over another five years and we could be facing a crisis. More than ever before we’re seeing a fracture in how different parts of society view their institutions. Those of us who are in a position to do something about it – in government, in business, in media should first acknowledge this new reality. We then quickly need to think about how we address it. We must start with the basics: straight-talking, genuine understanding of the issues impacting less fortunate compatriots and remembering that trust is built on shared hope.