We have known for some time that respect for our politicians has declined over the past few decades, and that an increasing number of people feel that their views are being ignored by people with power and money. It is one of the reasons for the rise in populism, in Britain and other countries. What has been less clear is what voters feel, deep down, is really wrong with our political system – what are its specific defects, and how do voters think they should be remedied.

Kate Dommett and Luke Temple have now filled that important gap. Their report provides the research evidence that has long been needed.

Three key findings struck me.

  • That big majorities want MPs to be both delegates and trustees – that is, to follow public opinion while at the same time doing what they think best for the country. The distinction between direct democracy and representative democracy – a matter that has engaged politicians and political thinkers for centuries – is one that few voters recognise. 

  • Most people want voters to have far more opportunity to get involved in political decisions, but few say they would get stuck in themselves should the opportunities present themselves. Like the rights to call a radio phone in, have our say at Speaker’s Corner or wave a placard outside Parliament, we value them even though few of us exercise those rights. 

  • Only 13 per cent of the public think political parties keep their promises. This is a remarkably low number, perhaps influenced by (a) Britain’s weak economic performance over the past decade; and (b) the state of the Brexit negotiations, which the great majority of voters think have been a mess and that the promises made during the referendum in 2016 have not been kept. In truth, governments of both parties have been rather good at keeping their specific manifesto promises. But only the most unusual voters go through a check-list of such promises; most people make a broader judgement, and that is more negative than might have been expected. 

What, then, is to be done?

I am sure the report is right to give pride of place to transparency. The perceived lack of transparency lies at the heart of the distrust and alienation that so many voters feel towards their elected leaders.

Here, though, is a paradox. By any formal measure, British politics and politicians are far more transparent than they were thirty or forty years ago. The Nolan Committee in the 1990s on Standards in Public Life led to far tighter rules about opening up Britain’s administration to greater scrutiny. The Freedom of Information Act opened up the political process even more. A decade ago, vast amounts of detail were made public, following the decision to put details of MPs’ expenses into the public domain. In a host of ways, politicians and civil servants stick more closely to the rules these days than ever before, as the risk of bad behaviour being exposed has vastly increased.

So why is transparency still thought to be so lacking and so necessary? Because it’s not really that kind of formal transparency that voters feel is missing. It is, I think, more a sense that politicians are not candid enough about the dilemmas they face, the policy trade-offs they must make, the risks of failure that attends almost any new policy initiative, or the absurdity of the proposition, daily aired on television and radio, that all morality and wisdom in any given political argument lies on one side and all malign idiocy on the other.

In short, voters want to be treated as adults. Would this make a difference, given the prevailing character of our newspapers and, now, social media? I don’t know; but given the stark picture painted by Kate Dommett and Luke Temple, it’s worth a try. 

 

DISCLAIMER: This blog was produced by Peter Kellner as part of a blog series following the publication of “The Ideal Party: What People Want To See In Parties Today” report. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Involve, University of Sheffield or the ESRC.