The Sunday Long Read
Britain’s democracy has been evolving in fits and starts for centuries, but recent events have raised questions about how well it is working. Do we like how we are governed, or do we just accept that it is imperfect? Do we understand how decisions are made and how power is exercised? Do we want change? These questions are being explored by a team at the Constitution Unit at University College London (UCL), and they have just published a report on a second big survey of public attitudes, carried out last summer.
We do care about the constitution
Constitutional change can seem a fairly dry technical issue, but people do care. When the Constitution Unit asked people to rank 30 issues in order of importance, the cost of living and the NHS, predictably, came at the top. But “the health of democracy” is in ninth place, alongside housing and human rights, and well above the UK’s relationship with the EU. So, even if most people only engage during elections, they do care about how they are governed.
A better view than snapshot polls
This study was not a conventional opinion poll. Opinion polls give us a snapshot of what people think about very specific questions at a given time. Questions have to simplify complex issues and can produce misleading answers, especially on issues where people don’t have strong views or understanding. So, the UCL team have used more complex techniques to test ideas. The result is a much more refined picture of what we think. And, by taking a representative sample of the population and repeating the survey with the same 4,000 people, they can track changes in views over time.
Inevitably, during a politically turbulent period, timing will have had an impact on results. However, although the first survey was carried out in 2021, before “Partygate”, and the second was a year later, after the resignation of Boris Johnson but before the selection of Liz Truss, on most issues, the picture was fairly stable. So, what did they find?
We don’t trust politicians
Trust in democratic institutions was low. Slightly over half said that politicians generally “tend to follow lower ethical standards than ordinary citizens”. Trust in the Prime Minister was extremely low and had declined to a net score (positive minus negative) of -43% in the year since the first survey. Parliament, at -32% fared only slightly better. Trust was much higher in the Civil Service (-1%), and the Courts (+6%). Trust in the Prime Minister and Parliament was highest among those who voted leave in the Brexit referendum, and Conservative in 2019.
A clear majority were in favour of having an independent person (not the Prime Minister) to investigate all cases of wrongdoing by politicians. Four fifths wanted to see that “politicians who do not act with integrity are punished”. The researchers asked about five kinds of wrongdoing: awarding contracts to friends, bullying, lying, incompetent management of a Department, and inappropriate private behaviour. In most cases, they believed that the investigator (not the Prime Minister) should decide on what action to take. That’s a radical change.
We value rules
Some previous surveys have found surprising support for “a strong leader, who is willing to break rules to get things done”. There was almost no support for that view here. Respondents were asked to choose between two versions of “healthy democracy”. The first “requires that politicians always act within the rules”, and the second means “getting things done, even if that requires politicians to break the rules”. In this survey, they supported the former by 78% to 6%.
We want more power for Parliament
The executive is supposed to be accountable to Parliament, but in practice, on many issues, the government calls the shots, including deciding what will and will not be debated in Parliament.
People are clearly unhappy about the current balance. Almost half agreed that “Parliament should be strengthened, so that ministers’ proposals are scrutinised more carefully”. Predictably, this view was strongest among supporters of opposition parties, but even among Conservative voters, a third agreed, while only a fifth of Conservatives wanted more power for government.
Asked whether “Parliament should always need to consider and approve changes in the law”, more than three quarters said yes. Even on minor and urgent matters, two thirds wanted Parliament to make the decision. However, one might question whether this is practicable. At present, around 3,500 decisions are made every year using secondary legislation, where Parliament gives Ministers the power to act without further debate. Of these, around 1,000 are submitted for approval (but not debate) by Parliament.
We might want a change to voting systems
For more than 30 years, polls have found voters evenly divided on changing our electoral system, from first past the post to some form of proportional representation. The balance for and against reform often seems to reflect the wording of the question rather than any fundamental change. However, there has been a recent shift in favour of proportionality. There are now large majorities in favour among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. Even among Conservative voters, who overall preferred first past the post, a third now favour reform.
At 48%, support for change was much higher than for the status quo (25%), but the responses varied according to the arguments used. Almost half of respondents agreed with the statement, “The voting system for elections to the UK House of Commons should be changed, so that the number of MPs each party gets matches more closely the number of votes each party gets”. There was much less support when the idea was presented in other ways, like “to avoid safe seats, where the same party always wins”.
We want some reform to the House of Lords
Every time the Prime Minister appoints another set of members to the House of Lords, there is debate about reform of the second chamber.
At 777 members, the House of Lords is one of the largest legislative chambers in the world, and there is a natural tendency for Prime Ministers to appoint more members, to make it easier to get their legislation through, or to reward political favours. There was strong support for the view that the total numbers should be capped, and that members should be appointed by an independent body, not by the Prime Minister.
The role of the Lords is unclear. Some see it primarily as a house of appointed independent experts to provide technical scrutiny of legislation; others think it should be elected, to represent the people, and hold the government to account. Respondents divided equally between these two, with a similar number choosing “agree/disagree with both equally”. The same pattern was evident for all parties.
Respondents were firmly in favour of the Lords having the power to ask the Commons to think again on policy issues (which is the current position), but were divided on whether they should ever be able to overrule the Commons, as is suggested for constitutional issues in the Labour Party’s recent proposals.
We do trust the courts
Despite what some politicians and media say, confidence in the Courts is high. Forty percent agreed that “Judges have an important role in ensuring that elected politicians operate within the rules”, and in the case of a dispute between Parliament and Government, 44% believed that judges should decide.
Support for the courts’ role in defending human rights was strong. Although the largest group thought that the role of judges is about right now, more people thought that the courts should have stronger powers to protect human rights than the reverse. Forty-four percent thought that the Courts should have the power to ask Parliament to reconsider legislation which they thought infringed human rights, and nearly a third thought that the courts should be able to strike down such a law, with only 11% disagreeing.
Most of us don’t want to be more involved in politics
It is disappointing to activists, but most people (54%) do not want to be more involved in politics. This is especially true of leave voters and conservative voters. However, it is possible that some of the reforms suggested here could make some difference.
What would improve democracy?
Asked about how an ideal democracy might work, people favoured elections and referendums, and participative democracy, like citizens assemblies and consultations. They did not want donations to influence decisions, and were sceptical about social media, demonstrations and strikes.
More than half supported the idea of citizens assemblies to decide difficult political issues. By contrast, there was support, in principle, for more referendums; but when asked about specific issues, people did not want them.
By far the most popular improvement (supported by 80%), was “politicians speaking more honestly”. Of 18 possible improvements, more than half of respondents supported:
- more factual reporting by the media (and less opinion)
- MPs thrown out of Parliament for lying
- more people turned out to vote
- politicians admitted that most issues are complex, and compromises are needed
- we all listened more to those with different opinions.
The least popular changes were:
- Government ministers faced fewer hurdles in implementing their policies
- Judges could no longer decide on whether a law violates human rights
- The country had a written constitution
- Referendums were held more often.
The report is an important contribution to our understanding of how our democracy works and could be improved. Although most people do not take a very active part in politics, they do care about how they are governed, and have views about what is wrong and how it might be put right.
The findings are encouraging for progressives. They show little general support for some of the more authoritarian measures proposed by the right wing of the Conservative party and some of the media. There is support for more honesty, toleration[MOU2] , and recognition of complexity, and the need for compromise.
But we are dissatisfied by how we are governed. Trust is low. We want more honesty in politics, with clear and strong rules. Those rules should be enforced by independent regulators with real powers to punish. We want more scrutiny of government, and more power for Parliament. We would welcome electoral reform, and some reform of the House of Lords.
We very clearly do not want to give more power to Ministers, and welcome the checks provided by the courts and the House of Lords.
Constitutional reform is unlikely to feature strongly in the next general election campaign, where more immediately practical issues are bound to dominate. But, below the surface, we do want change. We shall see if an incoming government has the nerve, and the time, to respond.