Last month the Unit published the first report of its Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. Titled What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?, the report summarises the findings of a UK-wide survey conducted last summer. Ahead of today’s Unit seminar, the project’s Research Assistant, James Cleaver, asks how the findings compare with previous research.
The Unit’s new report, What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?, contains numerous important findings, many of which relate directly to current concerns about low political trust and standards in public life, and debates about the proper role of the courts. The report is based on a survey conducted in July 2021 in partnership with YouGov, with a sample size of almost 6,500 people who were representative of the UK’s voting age population.
When we asked respondents how satisfied they were with how democracy works in the UK, 54% said they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly satisfied’, against 40% who were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all satisfied’.
But respondents had very little trust in politicians. Net trust in the Prime Minister was -31%, and that in the UK parliament was -19%. In contrast, attitudes towards the civil service were neutral (+1%), and they were positive towards the judiciary (+19%).
One of the most striking findings was that respondents attached great importance to the honesty and integrity of those in public life. Being honest and owning up when making mistakes were seen as the two most important characteristics for a politician to have. When we asked respondents to imagine a future Prime Minister having to choose between specific forms of integrity and delivery, 49% favoured integrity against 35% for delivery. Similarly, an overwhelming majority of people favoured politicians following the rules, as opposed to breaking them in order to achieve things. This large majority remained constant across all groups in society, such as age, education, 2016 European Union referendum vote, and 2019 general election vote.
It should be remembered that our survey was conducted in July 2021, well before controversies about MPs’ second jobs and ‘Partygate’ catapulted standards to the top of the news agenda. On this basis, public appetite for ethical behaviour from politicians appears to be both high and enduring.
We also found that support for judicial interventions was greater than is often supposed. When respondents were asked to imagine a scenario in which some people were claiming that a new law breached a specific right, a majority favoured the courts either having their current powers under the Human Rights Act or having stronger powers of judicial review. This likely stems from the greater trust people have in the courts over politicians.
These results are striking and perhaps at times surprising. So it is important to compare them to other studies. Are our findings reliable? Is there evidence of changes in attitudes over time? What is new in the findings, and what did we already know?
Satisfaction with democracy
Our findings on satisfaction ‘with the way democracy works in the United Kingdom’ are similar to those of a recent Eurobarometer survey that used a virtually identical question, fielded just a few months earlier. It found 64% satisfaction. That is higher than our 54%, but it excluded ‘Don’t know’ responses. When we do the same for our survey, we get a figure of 58%.
Satisfaction with democracy appears to be higher than a few years ago. In the months preceding the 2019 general election, YouGov found only 38% satisfaction. Immediately after that election, the British Election Study found 42% were satisfied. While these studies used question wordings that differed very slightly from ours, the increased satisfaction is noticeable.
Indeed, the most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) report found that trust and confidence had risen since the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union in January 2020 – though this rise was concentrated among Leave voters. Although the BSA uses very different questions to ours, we can also plausibly identify a ‘winners’ effect’ in the responses to our survey. Those who voted Leave in 2016 (65% ‘very’ or ‘fairly satisfied’) or Conservative in 2019 (76%) tended to be more content with the current operation of democracy than those who voted Remain (45%) or Labour (35%).
Our findings on trust tally closely with those of other surveys, even where they use different question wordings or ask about different types of trust. In large part, this is due to the self-reinforcing nature of trust across its different dimensions: if I trust you to tell the truth, as some surveys ask, I am more likely to trust that you have my and others’ best interests at heart, as we asked.
That trust in the current Prime Minister and in the political class more generally is low is well known. Indeed, the most recent iteration of Ipsos Mori’s long-running Veracity Index found that politicians and government ministers were jointly the second least trusted professionals to tell the truth, just ahead of advertising executives.
Our finding of higher trust in the courts also backs up previous research. The invaluable – and sadly discontinued – Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement found net trust in the courts ‘to act in the best interests of the public’ at +26% in its final, 2019 edition. The 2019 prorogation case in the Supreme Court might have been expected to significantly damage that trust among those who voted Leave in 2016. However, while those who voted Remain in 2016 had higher levels of trust in the judiciary than those who voted Leave, net trust in the court system was still positive in the latter group, at +5%.
Integrity in politics
Our findings on the public’s appetite for greater integrity in politics, even at the expense of delivery, are more novel. They contrast not only with the current government’s rhetoric that what people want is delivery, but also with some previously well-publicised findings. The 2019 Hansard Audit found that 54% of people agreed with the statement, ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules’.
One reason for this difference may be timing: Hansard’s fieldwork was conducted in late 2018 during the paralysis of the Brexit parliament, when respondents may have placed greater value on a decisive executive. Another factor may be the structure of the survey questions. Our questions about integrity asked respondents to choose between competing characteristics, conceptions, or actions. In contrast, Hansard’s question asked respondents how far they agreed or disagreed with a single statement. The latter kind of question is vulnerable to ‘acquiescence bias’, whereby respondents tend to agree with a statement that is presented to them. By asking our respondents to think about and then choose between two options, we sought to remove that danger.
The benefits of this ‘trade-off’ approach to questions also give us greater confidence in our results compared to a recent survey for the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Like our survey, this found strong support for high ethical standards in public life. But it tended to put forward relatively uncontroversial statements, such as ‘Ethical standards in government are important for making democracy work’ (76% agreement). By asking people to engage with trade-offs, we believe that our findings demonstrate more conclusively that standards really do matter to people.
Our survey is, so far as we know, the most detailed investigation of public attitudes towards the role of the courts in the UK – though also noteworthy is a recent paper that tested support for the European Court of Human Rights. Other surveys that have been conducted – on support for judicial review or the Human Rights Act – also found high levels of support for a strong judiciary. Again, we think our findings are stronger, because we asked respondents to choose between options rather than agree or disagree with a single statement.
The study of public attitudes towards the judiciary is a relatively recent field. We hope that our work will stimulate further investigations.
Our findings on satisfaction with democracy and trust in certain institutions concur with other recent work, in terms both of the present situation and of patterns over time. This is unsurprising considering that this field is well-established and similar question types are used across studies. In contrast, our results regarding demands for integrity in politics and a strong role for the judiciary are original, and we hope more reliable than some previous studies due to the nature of the questions we have asked. We know more clearly than before the great value that voters in the UK place on integrity in their elected representatives, and the importance they attach to legal constraints on what politicians are able to do.
What Kind of Democracy Do People Want? has raised important attitudinal and methodological questions about citizens’ democratic preferences, and we look forward to building on it in our second population survey, which will be fielded later this year.
The report was launched at an event on 10 February. Video and audio of that event are available on the Unit website.