Lack of trust in politicians key riot factor

By Phil Scullion

A lack of trust in politicians was a central factor in the riots which plagued English cities earlier this month, according to an academic research project.

Politicians are seen as a "class apart" who abide by their own rules and this attitude towards the political class was a more influential factor than poverty or lax moral values, said the report.

The research by academics at Essex University and Royal Holloway was first seen by the Independent newspaper and is expected to draw the attention of a panel being set up by the government to seek the causes of the riots and a separate home affairs select committee inquiry.

Sarah Birch, reader in politics at Essex University and report co-author, conceded that it would be an oversimplification to brand politicians solely responsible.

However, she said: "The evidence we've examined suggests that there is something about the functioning of the political system and the behaviour of politicians that makes a significant minority of people potentially available for participation in acts of mass illegality.

"If politicians want to provide moral leadership, they need to do so through their deeds as well as their words."

The report warns that the tough measures to punish rioters currently under consideration, such as withdrawal of benefits, could act to further compound the problem by creating further alienation.

It adds that "breaches of trust" by political elites such as the expenses scandal can have a "profound negative effect" and also refers to the "middle class looting" by bankers during the financial crisis.

"These results should be sobering for politicians. If those at the bottom of society are to refrain from engaging in violent disorder, more needs to be done to build public confidence in the integrity of those at the top of British government," the report continues.

The findings are at direct contrast to the conclusions drawn by many politicians and commentators over recent weeks.

David Cameron, prime minister, has pointed to the "broken society" and backed tough sentences for those caught rioting and looting.

Meanwhile some on the left have blamed the coalition's spending cuts.

The research was based upon various opinion polls and focus group discussions, some of which took place before the riots.

It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.