Last month the Constitution Unit published What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?, the first report of its Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. To mark the report’s launch, a seminar was convened to discuss its findings, their implications, and possible future avenues of research. The project’s research assistant, James Cleaver, summarises the discussion.
What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?is the first of four reports from the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. It is based on a UK-wide 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.
A panel of three speakers was convened to discuss the report’s findings: Professor Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, who is leading the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project; Paula Surridge, Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at the University of Bristol and Deputy Director of UK in a Changing Europe; and James Johnson, founder of J.L. Partners and former Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit and a Co-Investigator on the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. You can watch the event here.
Alan Renwick outlined the structure of the research project and summarised the report’s key results. He focused on three overarching findings: while there exists broad satisfaction with democracy, people have very little trust in politicians; most members of the public want politicians who are honest, have integrity, and operate within the rules; and people generally prefer not to concentrate power in the hands of a few politicians, but rather to spread it to parliament, non-politicians, and the wider public. You can read more about the key findings of the report, and how they compare with other studies, in a recent post on this blog.
Paula Surridge began her remarks by relating the report’s findings to the state of public opinion in the wake of the ‘partygate’ scandal. Although this survey was conducted in July 2021, the importance respondents assigned to honesty and integrity from those in public life reflected how deeply ingrained these concerns were in public perceptions, long before these issues became part of the ‘cut and thrust’ of daily politics from late 2021.
This, Surridge argued, provides evidence for why accusations of rule-breaking, corruption, and lying have been so potent in recent months, as opinion polls have shown. Such allegations reinforced the public’s existing prejudices about politicians, and were therefore more readily accepted as truthful.
Surridge also focused on what the report had revealed about the relationship of people to politics. While the report found that people felt they had too little influence on how the UK is governed and that they wanted politicians to be accountable to them (such as believing that MPs should follow the will of their constituents), people did not regard being personally involved in democracy as particularly important. Indeed, of a list of 24 desirable characteristics in a democracy, the two perceived as least important were ‘People are active in their local communities’ and ‘People are free to join or organise pressure groups’.
Given the importance of devolving power in the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda and recent white paper, understanding how much people are willing to participate in local democracy is crucial to understanding how the public might engage with this new settlement. In the context of these proposed reforms, Surridge raised a note of caution that many people appear to want to keep politics at arm’s length. This could result in local democracy being even more disproportionately shaped by those who are politically engaged than at present.
James Johnson expounded on both alarming and encouraging signs in the report for the health of the UK’s democracy. Referencing a question which found that only 32% thought ‘Democracy is always the best form of government’ while 54% thought ‘Democracy is good so long as it delivers effective government’, he cautioned that trust in democracy appeared to be conditional on the effectiveness of its institutions.
Drawing on his experience running focus groups across the UK, Johnson noted that all MPs were being tarnished by the ongoing scandals in Downing Street. Low levels of political trust, as evidenced in the report, have the potential to damage faith in democracy itself, creating a groundswell of apathy in the country.
Johnson was more optimistic about the public’s attitudes towards non-political actors. He pointed towards the relatively high levels of trust in the judiciary, even among those who voted Leave in 2016, and widespread support for the courts playing a role in resolving disputes about human rights. Furthermore, the fact that the government’s scientific advisers were comfortably the most trusted group asked about in the Unit’s survey reflected well on the state of national discourse beyond social media.
Finally, Johnson also contextualised the report’s findings on integrity at the expense of delivery. He noted that, at the time the survey was in the field, stories about ‘wallpapergate’ and government sleaze were prominent, which may have nudged respondents towards favouring integrity. In addition, his own experiences with potential voters had demonstrated that ‘get things done’ remained a powerful and attractive slogan for the government.
Alan Renwick briefly responded to the issues raised by the other panellists. Regarding the apparent paradox of people believing they had too little political influence but also appearing unwilling to become more involved, he noted that this may reveal ‘stealth democracy’ attitudes within the UK’s population. ‘Stealth democrats’ is a term used to describe those who want the political system to deliver on their priorities but have little interest in participating directly themselves; they are content to turn over decision-making to disinterested parties or individuals.
Responding to James Johnson’s points about growing apathy and the apparent allure of delivery above personal standards, Alan Renwick suggested that apathy may explain why concerns about integrity appear to have limited impact on how people actually vote. If people believe that all politicians equally untrustworthy, why wouldn’t they vote for who they thought could do the most for them?
In the ensuing panel discussion, each of the panellists was asked what they found most surprising about the report’s findings. Paula Surridge mentioned the fact that people appeared to distinguish between the Prime Minister and the government, as evidenced by the latter performing worse on questions about trust. James Johnson brought up the apparent unwillingness of respondents to concentrate powers in the hands of the Prime Minister, despite that position increasingly commanding greater political and journalistic attention. Alan Renwick expressed his surprise at the level of support for judges in the population.
The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A session with the audience. Ideas for future research were raised, which included potentially asking survey respondents whether there might be appetite for greater public input in defining key rights and whether analysing the content of MPs’ inboxes might provide a clue about their influences.
Looking to the future, one audience member asked whether trust in politics would be a key issue at the next general election. Paula Surridge suggested that any effect would be found in turnout on election day rather than in the content of any manifestos. James Johnson predicted that trust would become less salient than issues such as the cost of living during an election campaign, although this should not imply that current events will have no impact.
The seminar provided a fascinating interpretation of the report’s findings, and demonstrated that there is still much to be learned about public attitudes towards democracy in the UK today. The issues raised by panellists and audience members will be considered in the design of a second survey of the UK population, which will be fielded in spring 2022.
This post is a summary of the main contributions of the three speakers, and includes only a very brief sample of the interesting discussion and Q&A session that followed. You can watch the complete event on YouTube, or listen to a podcast version. Recordings of previous events are available on our YouTube and podcast pages. We also recommend that you join our mailing list to be notified about future events, which are free and open to all. You can read the full report, What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?.
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