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Britain’s democratic disillusionment

Britain’s democratic disillusionment

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.

Three years ago, Tortoise launched an investigation that we called The Rules.

Out of the mayhem Brexit caused in Parliament, among other things, our starting position was that democracy wasn’t working. 

And as part of the investigation, we commissioned a large-scale opinion poll to get a deeper sense of the British electorate’s mood. It had 10,000 respondents, that’s ten times the normal number in polls you see reported in the press and we also commissioned two focus groups, all conducted by DeltaPoll in April. 

Peter Kellner, a pollster and political commentator, is the mastermind behind it. Here he is speaking to Tortoise.

“What we were looking for was a sense as to whether voters out there think our democratic system is working or not working.

When I say democratic system, I don’t mean this government, this prime minister. I don’t mean Ukraine or inflation. Something much more fundamental about whether the architecture of British democracy is holding up or do people think it’s crumbling. And I have to say I was surprised and disappointed at how critical so many voters are of the basis of our democratic institutions.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

Twelve years since the Conservatives took power and six since the EU referendum, it’s clear voters are dissatisfied and divided. 

Tortoise wanted to find out why trust in the system was so low and what might change that.

***

Peter Kellner’s three main findings all paint a worrying picture.

“When we ask people, “do they think Britain is a democratic society?”, only half the sample think Britain is either very or fairly democratic.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

Voters want to see their lives improving as a result of political processes. And a lot feel the current system isn’t delivering. 

Now the thing that’s harder to tell is whether this is a reaction to 14–15 years when for most people there’s not been a rise in living standards, when public services have been under strain, when there hasn’t been what we had… with a few exceptions… pretty steady growth from the 1950s to around 2007, a general secular rise in prosperity, more money being spent on public services, higher take home pay, better jobs and so on.

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

And perhaps unsurprisingly, they blame politicians when they experience a decline in living standards like we’re seeing now.

“The second thing is that they have a very low opinion of MPs.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

Revelations about pandemic parties in government, and allegations, sometimes proven, of sexual misconduct by MPs has tarnished their reputation further.

“Here we do have some historic data. And if you go back, say, to the post-war era – late 1940s, 1950s – it’s not that MPs were wildly popular, but a substantial number, a majority of voters, broadly thought that Parliament worked well, that MPs broadly were public spirited, not simply out for themselves.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

Back then people expected less from those elected to represent them. That’s now changed, which has done two things…

“It’s dragged MPs’ behaviour up because they can’t afford to be seen to fall far too below the standards. But the transparency that we now have means that, financial peccadilloes that would have been ignored or not known about half century or a century ago are known about.

The reality is we probably have one of the cleanest political systems in terms of MPs’ financial behaviour of any country in the world.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

Despite that, the polling suggests that people feel MPs are generally out for themselves. Just one voter in four thinks they are “genuinely interested” in public service and helping their constituents, while four-fifths feel they have little or no say in how the country is run.

“The third thing we found, which I found the most terrifying of all, is when we asked people to choose between a society led by a strong leader who could take quick decisions and not have to worry about Parliament and the process of parliamentary scrutiny and legislation or a system in which we kept parliamentary scrutiny, the parliamentary process, even if that slowed things down, 30 per cent – one person in three – would prefer to have a strong leader that could ride roughshod over our conventional systems for keeping an executive in check.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

That means around 14 million people are happy for Britain to have a strongman leader, even if they break the rules, to implement big decisions without having to consult parliament. 

And Britain isn’t alone. It’s clear that other countries have shifted this way too.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen got more than 40 per cent of the vote in the recent French presidential election, and for a while, the AfD in Germany had a period as the main opposition force.

***

Perhaps most enlightening of all was when voters were asked how they feel about democracy.

They were given a list of eight adjectives to choose from. The top three that people chose were all negative.

“The biggest was: “uneasy” – four in 10; “disgusted” – a quarter; “angry” – just a bit under a quarter. And then the three that came last were positive: “proud” – just 8 per cent; “happy” – 8 per cent; “confident” – 10 per cent.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

It’s clear that British democracy isn’t working. There’s a public disenchantment with our politicians, the power gap is widening, and many believe British society is unfair.

“The answer in the end, the solution, is with MPs themselves.”

Peter Kellner, pollster and political commentator

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.