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Sensemaker: People minus power

Sensemaker: People minus power

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A study by the UK’s Royal College of Nursing found white nurses were twice as likely to be promoted in the NHS as their Black and Asian colleagues.
  • Brazilian police launched a criminal investigation into the disappearance of Bruno Pereira, an expert on indigenous peoples, and Dom Phillips, a British journalist, in the remote Amazon.
  • An 80-year old runaway tortoise was found by rail workers and reunited with her owners eight months after absconding from her pen in Knebworth, north of London.

People minus power

British democracy isn’t working. Twelve years since the Conservatives took power and six since the EU referendum, voters are dissatisfied with their representatives, divided by demography and distrustful of a system that seems stacked against them.

Barely half of voters think of Britain as a functioning democracy.

Nearly a third want a strong leader unconstrained by parliament when it comes to making big decisions.

Three quarters think MPs don’t care much or at all about their everyday concerns.

Four-fifths feel they have little or no say in how the country is run.

These aren’t hunches. They are among the findings of a comprehensive Tortoise investigation of the state of democracy in the land of Black Rod, Magna Carta and Boris Johnson. They’re based on an exclusive poll of 10,000 voters – five times the standard sample size for surveys of voter sentiment.

The investigation starts with this week’s Slow Newscast, continues with a series of ThinkIns in London, Birmingham and Bristol and continues next month with the Tortoise summit on the state of British democracy.

More key findings from Tortoise’s Democracy in Britain poll:

On representation, vital levers of power between people and parliament are seen as broken.

  • Two-thirds of voters say most MPs “are mainly out for themselves”.
  • Fewer than one in five think ministers care about their concerns.
  • By 2:1, they think it doesn’t make much difference which party is in power.
  • Only 5 per cent say “the quality of our MPs” is one of the best features of British democracy, compared with 54 per cent who say it’s one of the worst.
  • 61 per cent say it’s dangerous to give leaders too much power, but 30 per cent – or the equivalent of 14 million adults – think “Britain these days needs a strong leader who can take and implement big decisions without having to consult Parliament”.

On fairness, the power gap is widening.

  • Nearly six in ten say “rich and powerful people having more political influence than ordinary voters” tops a list of the worst features of British democracy.
  • Two-thirds say people who live in cities have more advantages than those in towns and villages.
  • By wide margins, they say southerners have more advantages than northerners, men than women, graduates than non-graduates, straight people than LGBTQ+ people and those born in Britain over those born elsewhere. 
  • They know the elderly get more help than young people from the government, but still reject higher taxes and more support for the under-30s by 2:1.

On public services, despite endless gloomy headlines, something is working.

  • Seven in ten adults are broadly or very satisfied with the service they get from the NHS, rising to 72 per cent when looking specifically at local health provision.
  • Clear majorities are satisfied with their local state schools, police and local government services including bin collection.
  • But satisfaction with universities and the courts barely rises above 50 per cent

On Brexit and Britishness, Britain seems to be suffering from buyer’s remorse and boomer truculence.

  • 45 per cent of voters would vote to rejoin the EU if there was another referendum, compared with 40 per cent who’d vote to stay out.
  • 40 per cent consider having the Queen as head of state one of the best features of British democracy even though no one’s ever voted for her.
  • More than two thirds (68 per cent) across all age ranges say young people don’t have enough respect for traditional British values. 

Street parties and Partygate have thrown Britons’ relationship with democracy into sharp relief, and they may help explain some of these findings. “Our response to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee shows that tradition and rules still matter to us,” the pollster and political analyst Peter Kellner says. “It’s just that we no longer look to Parliament to uphold them.”


The state of British politics puts our democracy at risk 

Peter Kellner

We all know the mantra. Britain has its problems but, for all its faults, our nation is a mature, stable democracy. We don’t do civil wars or revolutions. We haven’t been occupied since 1066 or lost a major war since America gained its independence. Fascists, Nazis and Communists have never broken through. A British version of Donald Trump would surely never succeed.

Could that view be dangerously complacent? Are we sure that we are uniquely immune to the attractions of anti-democratic populism? A century ago, Max Weber identified the three sources of authority as tradition, rules and charisma. Twentieth-century Europe showed what can happen when rules and tradition fail to improve people’s daily lives and a toxic version of charisma sweeps all before it.

New research for Tortoise suggests that the risks of our democracy fraying are greater than we might think – not, perhaps, in the form of a constitutional thunderclap, but in the growing appeal of “strong” leaders who seek over time to override the checks and balances that stand in their way. 


Levelling not working
If levelling up was meant to boost Tory fortunes as well as citizens’ life chances in deprived UK communities, there’s not much sign it’s working. A report issued today by the Public Accounts Committee says the government has squandered billions on poorly thought-through plans, making what was supposed to be a signature economic strategy “little more than a slogan”. And it’s not cutting through at that. The Democracy in Britain poll finds voters prefer the idea of a Labour government with Keir Starmer as PM and Rachel Reeves as chancellor to that of a Conservative one with Johnson and Rishi Sunak by a margin of 42 to 35 per cent. That widens to 47 vs 32 in the North, where levelling up was meant to hit home. In Red Wall seats won by the Conservatives in 2019 the gap is narrower but Labour still leads by 39 to 35. No wonder Johnson wants to talk this week about housing rather than a snap election. 


Anti-protest police 
In the last year, 8 per cent of respondents to our poll said they had taken an active part in a campaign, march or demonstration. It’s a similar story for other forms of direct action, like attending a political meeting (6 per cent) or contacting the media on a political issue (8 per cent). For comparison: five and a half times as many have signed a petition and over four times as many have shared a campaign on social media. Those who do actively protest have clearly raised the home secretary’s hackles. The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill has protest crackdown front and centre. Priti Patel recently told the Commons “we do not make policy through mob rule in this country” and called for greater police powers to “protect the rights” of the public. Yesterday, the Evening Standard published witness testimonies from Met Police officers who attended last year’s Sarah Everard vigil after she was murdered by a serving Met officer. The officers claimed it became an “anti-police” protest. The force is appealing a High Court ruling that they breached rights of the organisers. Six women are currently being prosecuted for attending and breaching Covid guidance. 


Big Tech trust bust
If democracy runs on trustworthy information, democracy-watchers in Britain should worry that more and more people are getting their news from less and less trusted sources. To wit: 59 per cent of voters don’t trust what they see on YouTube much or at all, rising to 66 per cent for Twitter and 75 for Facebook. There’s consolation in that trust remains high in mainstream TV news, and not just from the BBC. ITV News is in a dead heat with the BBC with 65 per cent of adults trusting each network a lot or to some extent, but both are in long-term decline in terms of quarterly reach as doomscrolling through aggregators and social media sites proves irresistible to smartphone users, ie to 83.7 per cent of the world’s population.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Netflix Health Service 
According to the UK’s health secretary the NHS is “Blockbuster” – the video rental store that went bankrupt in 2010 – when it needs to be more “Netflix”. Part of his message seems to be a plea for modernisation. The target is increased productivity as well as £4.5 billion in savings. When a spokesperson was asked how these “big changes” would be achieved, they said no more investment would be provided than has already been promised by the Treasury. The shadow health secretary responded that it was “absurd” for ministers to speak in generalities with “no plans” to change anything, and what happens to the NHS is of course the third rail of British politics. The right to be treated free at the point of need by the NHS was top of voters’ priorities in our poll at 50 per cent, above freedom of speech, the right to vote and the right to privacy. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

The non-boycott
Not many Brits are withholding money for the sake of the planet. Only 22 per cent of adults say they’ve boycotted products in the last 12 months for political, ethical or environmental reasons. Given that “environmental” is a subset of this basket, that suggests fewer than 22 per cent have, for example, not flown, not bought carbon-intensive fast-fashion or not eaten aged ribeye in the past year specifically because of the climate emergency. Considering the crescendo of coverage leading up to Cop26, and earnest claims from business leaders that they’re responding to a sea-change in consumer sentiment, this seems a low number. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis. Graphics by Katie Riley. 

Photographs Getty Images

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