The UK public want politicians who are honest, have integrity, and operate within the rules, over and above delivering outcomes, finds a new report by the UCL Constitution Unit.
Published today, What Kind of Democracy Do People Want? details the response of 6,500 people, representative of the voting age population across the whole of the UK, who were surveyed in July 2021.
The report, which is the most in-depth to date in terms of asking people about what roles institutions should play, shows that UK voters care about how those in power are held to account and that there is notably higher support for judicial interventions than is often supposed.
It reveals that people do not want power concentrated in the hands of a few but would like it shared among parliament, judges, regulators, civil servants, and the public.
When asked to ‘imagine that a future Prime Minister has to choose between acting honestly and delivering the policy that most people want’, 71% chose honesty and only 16% delivery. When asked about a range of characteristics that politicians should have, ‘being honest’ came top, followed by ‘owning up when they make mistakes’. ‘Getting things done’ and ‘being inspiring’ were far behind.
When we asked whether respondents agreed more that ‘Healthy democracy requires that politicians always act within the rules’ or that ‘Healthy democracy means getting things done, even if that sometimes requires politicians to break the rules’, 75% chose the former and just 6% the latter.
The survey was conducted in summer 2021, when support for the Conservative government led by Boris Johnson remained high. Since then, the government has been hit by rows about parliamentary standards, MPs’ second jobs, and claims about breaches of the Covid rules. Even at this early stage, public appetite for greater integrity in politics was very high.
Professor Alan Renwick, project lead and Deputy Director of the UCL Constitution Unit said: “It’s often said that people aren’t interested in political processes – they just want government to deliver. It’s true that few people pay much attention to the fine details of democratic institutions. But people do want a system in which politicians act with integrity and where power isn’t unduly concentrated with ministers in government.
“Most people, across different political affiliations, think that’s not the case at present.”
Researchers explored the public’s thoughts on the fundamentals of the democratic system and how democracy is working in the UK today. This included areas such as trust, integrity in politics, the roles of parliament, government, judges, regulators, the public and the civil service, as well as overall conceptions of democracy.
The large sample size allowed the team to investigate attitudes across different parts of the population. It also meant that they could ask different versions of many questions to different respondents leading to more precise and detailed understanding.
The findings show that voters care deeply about integrity and do not want power to be unduly concentrated in the hands of the executive.
Most voters want judges to constrain ministers. The team asked respondents to ‘imagine there is a dispute over whether the government has the legal authority to decide a particular matter on its own or whether it needs parliament’s approval’, and to consider how the despite should be settled. More than half (51%) said it should be settled by judges, against only 27% choosing government ministers or politicians in parliament.
The team also asked about whether judges should play a role in resolving whether a new law violates rights. Depending on the rights that were asked about, between 65% and 77% of respondents said that the courts should have their current powers under the Human Rights Act or stronger powers to strike down laws directly.
A large majority (60%) also said that civil servants should be ‘neutral and permanent government employees’ rather than ‘appointed by the government of the day’. And most respondents said that someone who had previously said the BBC should be neutral in its reporting could be a suitable candidate for BBC Chair.
Professor Renwick, added: “The results of this survey and a recent Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK show that concerns about standards in public life have really cut through. Across all parts of society, and across political allegiances, people are angry and frustrated and want their elected representatives to do better.
The survey and the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK are parts of a wider research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its Governance after Brexit research programme. There will be a further follow-up survey of the UK population in spring 2022.