A Plague on All Our Houses

16/09/2012 22:28 BST | Updated 16/11/2012 10:12 GMT

'Boris Johnson is Britain's most respected politician' read the headline in Guardian: a Yougov poll had shown that Boris Johnson had experienced a big bounce in support in the warm afterglow of the London Olympics and Paralympics.

In the survey, he had been given a net respect score of +25 - that is, of the respondents who were polled, 25% more thought him worthy of a lot or a fair amount of respect than those who thought he merited little or no respect. To give this score some context, David Cameron's was -18, Ed Miliband was on -26 and Nick Clegg was on -52. You could see why the headline was about the positive score for Johnson, but this was a really story about the negatives scores for Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a crisis in British political leadership.

Yougov delved deeper into the public perception of the three party leaders, asking respondents to score each against a series of criteria such as being 'strong', 'a natural leader' and 'good in a crisis'. 11% of the respondents agreed that Cameron was 'strong'; Miliband got 5%, Clegg, 3%; when respondents were asked whether each was a natural leader: Cameron scored 13%, Miliband and Clegg scored 4%. Finally, they were asked if the three leaders were good in a crisis, Cameron scored 10%, Miliband 4%, Clegg, 2%. Johnson - the archetypal 'anti-politician' - outscored all three party leaders on all of these the criteria.

When they were asked about whether the leaders were good in a crisis, it is perhaps unlikely that the respondents to the Yougov poll were thinking about a crisis of legitimacy for our political leaders. But this is a crisis and not simply for the party leaders - who can continue to battle for the prize of 'best of a bad lot' - but also for the rest of us.

Some may argue that scepticism about political leaders is healthy in a democracy, that there is no reason to automatically defer to politicians and that they can still get on with their jobs even if they are not the most popular or respected people in the country. Yet it is very difficult to provide any kind of meaningful national leadership when polls consistently suggest the public have no faith in you. At a time when the UK faces its biggest economic challenge for decades and when our global position is challenged by the crisis in eurozone and the rise of emerging economies, we need strong leadership to guide us on a hitherto unchartered path; yet polls such as this one suggest that none of our three party leaders command the public trust - either in their judgement or their integrity - which is needed to provide true leadership.

At the same time, there is a quieter apathy and cynicism which pervades across this country. When the default position becomes mistrust for whole professions and institutions - 'the banks', 'the media', 'the police', 'politicians' - society moves beyond a healthy scepticism into blanket cynicism: 'a plague on all their houses' has been replaced by 'they're all as bad as each other' but the impact is the same. This prevailing attitude, merited or not, harms us all, makes us all less trusting of essential institutions which all to some degree rely on public confidence. In particular, such a 'vote of no confidence' as the figures above suggest puts all political leaders on the back foot when on some matters we need them to stand up and to lead. Not only that, but if political leadership is seen as an ignoble profession then the quality of future Parliamentarians will go down as those considering a career in politics decide to look elsewhere.

It is good that we live in a society where trust and deference have to be earned rather than taken for granted; we only need to look at other countries which don't have such a society to know that we would not want that here. But occasionally, we need leaders with the power and the mandate to take difficult and unpopular decisions and to take people with them. In a democracy such as ours that mandate comes not just from the ballot box but also from opinion polls. Until something changes, our politicians will not be as good as they should be and we won't get the leadership from them that we need. As a result, we all lose out and the country drifts. It's not a plague on all their houses - it's a plague on all our houses.