The UK’s constitutional norms and standards took a severe battering under Johnson: Labour should pledge to restore the system

There is no guarantee that the Johnson government’s dismal record on safeguarding our democracy will be improved upon by the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss. This creates big opportunities for Labour to offer a real alternative by restoring integrity and accountability to politics, writes Meg Russell.

Concerns about honesty and integrity and the erosion of constitutional norms were central to Boris Johnson’s dramatic downfall. The new Prime Minister’s attitudes in this area remain largely untested – though the omens during this summer’s leadership contest were not good. Meanwhile, public opinion research suggests that voters really care about these questions. That presents significant opportunities for Labour.

The charge sheet against Johnson was remarkably long. The journalist Peter Oborne, formerly political editor of the Spectator and a Telegraph columnist, dedicated both a website and a book to chronicling Johnson’s uneasy relationship with the truth. This trait was well known before he assumed the premiership and to an extent ‘priced in’. But the difficulties under his leadership went far wider, covering multiple aspects of integrity in politics and respect for the essential rules and norms that underpin UK democracy. This often put him at odds with regulators and non-political figures holding responsibility for maintaining the system, as well as with senior figures in his own party.

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Parliament’s watchdogs: independence and accountability of five constitutional regulators

The Unit today published a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators. Robert Hazell explains that public awareness of these regulators is low and the position of some of them in public life is precarious. He calls for several measures, including putting the CSPL on a statutory footing, protecting watchdogs from dismissal, and repealing the legislation allowing the government to produce a strategy statement for the Electoral Commission.

Origins of this study

The constitutional reforms of the last 25 years have seen an upsurge in the number of constitutional watchdogs. The Constitution Unit anticipated these developments from the start, with an early report on constitutional watchdogs in 1997 (Unit report no. 10). This interest was continued by Oonagh Gay and Barry Winetrobe, who wrote two major reports on watchdogs: Officers of Parliament: Transforming the Role (Unit report no. 100, 2003) and Parliament’s Watchdogs: At the Crossroads(Unit report no. 144, 2008).

Today sees the launch of a new report, Parliament’s Watchdogs: Independence and Accountability of Five Constitutional Regulators, (Unit report 195), by Marcial Boo, Zach Pullar and myself. Marcial Boo, former Chief Executive of IPSA, joined the Constitution Unit in late 2020 as an honorary research fellow. We asked him to do a study of those watchdogs which are directly sponsored by parliament, working with Zach Pullar, a young law graduate who has since become a Judicial Assistant in the Court of Appeal. There is an obvious tension with watchdogs whose role is to scrutinise the executive (like the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests), being themselves appointed and sponsored by the government. Less obvious, but just as fundamental, is the tension for watchdogs whose role is to regulate the behaviour of parliamentarians, being themselves appointed and sponsored by parliament.

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What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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Improving standards of conduct in public life

In November, the Constitution Unit hosted Lord (Jonathan) Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to discuss its new report, ‘Upholding Standards in Public Life’. Lisa James summarises the discussion.

In November, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its report Upholding Standards in Public Life, the result of a year-long review of the system of standards bodies regulating the UK government. Following the report’s publication, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with CSPL’s Chair, Lord (Jonathan) Evans, to discuss the findings. The event also followed closely behind the parliamentary standards scandal over then-MP Owen Paterson, in which the government was forced to U-turn after trying to overturn the House of Commons Standards Committee’s findings against Paterson on allegations of inappropriate lobbying.

The summary below reflects Lord Evans’ remarks and conversation with the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell. A full video of the event, including the audience Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Lord Evans began by introducing CSPL and the reasoning behind the Standards Matter 2 inquiry. CSPL is an independent advisory body, with an independent majority and a minority of party-political members. Established by then Prime Minister John Major in the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal, it was originally conceived as an ‘ethical workshop’ for the public sector. Continuing the metaphor, Lord Evans suggested that CSPL’s recent inquiry might be seen as an ‘MOT’ of the regulatory system for government: a wide-ranging review of the whole system, in an attempt to identify problems and suggest improvements. Focusing on ethical standards, the committee did not recommend radical change, but identified a number of moderate, ‘common-sense’ reforms to strengthen the system. These fell into three broad categories: stronger rules; greater independence for regulators; and a stronger compliance culture within government.

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