March 2, 2024 - 8:00am

Political parties are Britain’s least-trusted institution, according to new research. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that only 12% of the public trust political parties, while 68% don’t.  

This attitude bleeds out into our politics. The polls suggest the Conservatives are on track to be smashed at the next election, but there is little popular excitement at the prospect of Sir Keir Starmer entering Number Ten.

Who can blame them? Neither of the big parties seem to have even a convincing diagnosis of what ails Britain today. Less than a week before what might be the pre-election Budget, Jeremy Hunt and Rachel Reeves are busy stealing one another’s tax plans.

On the face of it, the ONS’ findings suggest that there is plenty of room in British politics for one or more new parties (“populist” or otherwise) to break through. Yet evidence of a convincing challenge is thin on the ground.

Reform UK has finally managed to start posting double-digit vote shares in by-elections, but they remain a marginal force, with questionable leadership and a negligible campaigning machine. George Galloway triumphed in Rochdale on Thursday, but he’s never managed to turn any of his personal parties into a significant national force.

In truth, Labour and the Conservatives have been extremely fortunate. For all the chaos caused by David Cameron’s referendums in the last decade, they have (for now at least) undermined the would-be challengers to the status quo.

The SNP’s defeat in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 left it adrift in government, playing for time with increasing desperation as the scandals and failures piled up.

The party is now the unpopular incumbent in the Scottish Government, and in no state to make a fresh push for breaking up the United Kingdom even if there was political room for a second referendum — and after 2014, there isn’t.

Brexit, meanwhile, has hurt this country’s nascent populists in two ways. First, it associated their big achievement — leaving the European Union — with all the problems that have befallen this country since 2016.

In more practical terms, Brexit also reset the clock on the long, hard slog to build a national party. UKIP not only built a local government base and won seats in the Welsh Assembly, it came second with 100 seats in 2015; had the referendum not taken place, it would almost certainly have had a significant breakthrough at the next election.

Reform UK has had to start from scratch, without either Nigel Farage or the clear demand (Brexit) that allowed them, over decades, to build up to where they were in 2015.

But the major parties shouldn’t get complacent. Our electoral system works in part by delaying the breakthrough of minor parties (except those with concentrated geographic appeal, such as the SNP), giving Labour and the Conservatives time to adjust and keeping most voters inside the tent.

But that depends on the big parties being able to adjust, and willing to move with shifting public opinion to keep ahead of their challengers. Neither Starmer nor Rishi Sunak have shown any sign of doing so; if their successors won’t or can’t, Britain may yet get its populist revolt.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.