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Friend of Tortoise Exclusive

The Rules: Democracy in Britain

The Rules: Democracy in Britain

This event is exclusive to Friends of Tortoise

The Rules

It’s been a turbulent few years for British politics. There’s arguably never been a more crucial time to take the temperature of British democracy.

With the help of veteran pollster Peter Kellner and the polling outfit Deltapoll, we asked 10,000 people across the country a series of questions to find out whether they think British democracy is working for them. The results – presented below – are stark: voters are dissatisfied with their representatives, divided by demography and distrustful of a system that seems stacked against them.

At Tortoise, we’re determined to fix it. Have a browse of the polling data and catch up on our Democracy in Britain Summit below to get a sense of where we’ve got to. If you have any thoughts on how we can fix Britain’s broken politics, please send them to james.wilson@tortoisemedia.com.


Who chooses the PM?

The new prime minister was chosen by a handful of the population – Conservative party members. But nobody knows exactly who these people are – or how secure the process is. So we’ve asked the Conservative Party to tell us.

The Democracy in Britain Poll

How well is British democracy working for people?

past event

The Democracy in Britain Summit

On 7 July we held our Democracy in Britain Summit, a day of ThinkIns to understand why British democracy is broken, and – with the help of several experts and a room full of Tortoise members – come up with solutions to fix it. While the Summit was interrupted at one point by the prime minister’s resignation, the day’s events in Westminster in the end proved a useful reminder of how broken the system is – and how urgent the need to fix it is.

  • Sessions
  • Readout

Our key takeaways from the Summit

Session 1: Is British Democracy under threat?

With Anand Menon, Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, King’s College London; Director, UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Gina Miller, Leader of the True and Fair Party.  

  • The important questions are not about the divisions around “leave” or “remain”. They are: how does sovereignty and political power work, what are the mechanics of modern democracy, why is the machine broken and, crucially, how do we fix it?
  • Gina Miller, leader of the True and Fair Party (a political party that is setting out to fix our broken politics and make voting fairer) made the point that we trust our politicians less than we used to – the word “corruption” is being used a lot more than it was 20 years ago. When there is no trust in politics, people switch off and become disenfranchised, which fundamentally undermines the most central tenet of democracy: participation. This becomes a vicious cycle. 
  • We haven’t modernised governance to meet the demands of modern times. We should modernise it – and we need to figure out how.

Session 2: British democracy: what do the public think?

With Peter Kellner, Former President, YouGov and Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde; Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research.

  • Peter Kellner, the veteran pollster and former president of YouGov, made clear that there’s an issue with widespread political alienation, distance and distrust in the UK. 
  • There’s also a link between declining living standards and a loss of faith in political institutions and processes: the worse people’s lives get, the more negatively they perceive democracy. 
  • When people talk about politics, they talk about characters, not policy. Kellner said that we have far too many MPs in the Commons who should be civil servants. They know a lot about policy but aren’t great at communicating with the public. 
  • Those who become MPs often have a preceding career in the political world. Should we change the process for becoming an MP? 
  • Tortoise editor Matt d’Ancona made the point that the processes and bodies for things like investigating parliamentary harassment aren’t up to scratch, and don’t have teeth – as was demonstrated several times during Johnson’s time in office. These processes need to be tidied up – and given the necessary power to carry out their work in a meaningful way.

Session 3: Digital democracy: can tech bring power to the people?

With Jamie Susskind, Author, The Digital Republic and Georgina Maratheftis, Associate Director, Local Public Services, techUK.

  • The room was unanimous in thinking that the ways in which people interact with the government online are not sufficient – but that technology today provides opportunities. There was a real appetite for digital voting, for instance.
  • However, the issue of digital inclusion, and the fact that not all people have the technical literacy required to engage with democracy online was a source of concern for some.
  • Jamie Susskind, barrister and author of The Digital Republic, argued that software engineers are the new social engineers, asking whether a new form of accreditation and accountability – the likes of which we have for judges, lawyers and medics – was necessary for software developers.
  • Platforms have enjoyed decades of permissionless innovation, and governments are a long way behind this in terms of understanding and controlling their impact.
  • Georgina Maratheftis, Associate Director at Local Public Services, techUK, said that partnerships – rather than an adversarial relationship – between government and technology companies will be crucial to building a future where digital democracy can really work for everyone.

Session 4: In conversation with Darren McGarvey: has remote politics wrecked Britain?

With Darren McGarvey, Author, The Social Distance Between Us:How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain.

  • In his 25-minute conversation with Matt d’Ancona, Darren McGarvey, the author of ​​The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain, said that elite politicians sit in guarded buildings pontificating about the needs of the people. They lack the experience to understand the citizens they serve. 
  • Politicians can not only control the narrative, but can control the conditions under which they can manipulate the narrative. 
  • We need to stop looking at trade unions as some kind of burden, he said. Trade unions and collective bargaining are a vital mechanism for guaranteeing social mobility for the lower classes. The fact people don’t understand that is testament to the success of a right-wing narrative against unions. 
  • Half of the people in young offenders institutions are care experienced – meaning they have been taken out of the care of the state because they are unsafe at home. Among this vulnerable youth there is a pathological distrust of the police. It is perpetuated by the way policing is structured. The minute young people come into contact with the police, for something like congregating in the wrong place, the less likely they are to go to the police for help – it’s simply not an option for these young people, he said.

Session 5: Can we bridge the generation gap?

With Mete Coban MBE, Councillor, London Borough of Hackney; CEO, My Life My Say, Polly Curtis, Author, Journalist and Acting CEO, Demos, Osaro Otobo, Deputy Chair, British Youth Council and Safi Sangster, UK Head Delegate, Youth G7.

  • Mete Coban, Labour councillor and CEO of campaign group My Life My Say, pointed out that the average age of an MP is 66. They’re not representative or in touch with the younger generation in any way.
  • There is a general haziness around British constitutional conventions. Improved education matched with simplification of the legislative process seems a key tool in repairing British democracy. 
  • The question, “how do we get young people involved in democracy” doesn’t recognise that “young people” are not one single homogenous group. Different groups face different challenges. Young people passionately care about issues, but they don’t see traditional politics as a vehicle to make those changes. 
  • Tortoise’s Democracy in Britain Poll found that while millennials were more likely to engage in other forms of civic participation (i.e. signing petitions, campaigning on social media, volunteering locally), they’re the least likely generation, in England and Wales at least, to vote or contact their MP or councillor. Why is a generation that’s more politically engaged less likely to engage with the UK’s political institutions?
  • The elderly and the young have different values and political priorities. Addressing them both will be hard, especially when it comes to how to pay for the fiscal costs of one group (i.e. social care) without burdening another.

Session 6: Does British democracy work for you?

With Tabitha Morton Councillor, Deputy Leader, Women’s Equality Party, Manny Hothi, Chief Executive, Trust for London and Darren McGarvey, Author, The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain

  • Parties are self-interested and detached from their function in government, which is to serve the people. Instead they are serving their party and its goal to retain power. Politics has become a one-sum game – James O’Brien’s phrase, “the footballification of politics”, suggests that politician’s goals are not social progress as much as re-election. 
  • There are revolutionary approaches to politics which are focused on shifting the dial as opposed to winning power. Tabitha Morton, Deputy Leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), said that in 2019 her party’s aim was to do a “clean-up job” on Westminster. The WEP stood five female representatives against five male MP’s with records of abuse who were running for re-election, and would only stand down if those male MP’s did. Those five MP’s are now former MPs. When the system has faults, those who want to change the system can exploit them.
  • Another thing the WEP attempts to do is shift the perception of certain aspects of society so that they’re seen as a preventative measure rather than a cost or a burden on society – i.e. adolescent social care.
  • We don’t have much to unify us as a country anymore – class, political allegiance and differing cultural values have divided us. It used to be the Church, but attendance rates have dropped significantly; football has been hugely commercialised and is now influenced by the middle class; libraries have closed since the start of austerity; the closest we got was during lockdown and we all united to clap the NHS. What do we have which unites the country?
  • The idea of “I believe in this person and will vote for them to cause positive change” is gone. Instead we are left with “I don’t want this person, so will vote for another person to prevent them getting elected.” The general public needs leaders with charisma and values it can get behind.

What can we learn as a newsroom?

  • Local journalism that really listens to people and tells their stories in an honest and interesting way is vital to upholding democracy. This serves many purposes, and – not least – makes political leaders aware of the needs of the public. 
  • Darren raised the example of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s. It was commissioned to understand poverty, and resulted in the Beveridge Report, which led to the golden age of social mobility, record levels of employment, interclass marriage and worker empowerment. Darren suggested that at a point the workers grew too empowered and the government shut it down. The welfare state worked well because the people were consulted about what they needed. Could Tortoise send someone out to understand what’s happening on the ground in order to understand the needs of people at the bottom? 
  • In an international context, the rivalry between the West and China means we must ensure that our own democracy is as strong as possible – so that it can remain an example of the benefits of democracy to countries vulnerable to Chinese influence. The weaker that western democracy is, the stronger the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism.

09.00-09.25 BST

In conversation with Anand Menon and Gina Miller: is British Democracy under threat?

Public confidence in our institutions has been undermined by repeated accusations of rule-breaking, cronyism, corruption, disregard for due process and a public distaste for uncooperative media. Does all this point to the need of a radical overhaul of the democratic structures of the UK, or are these just bumps in the road that can be fixed with a change of government? Is British democracy really under threat, and if it is – how do we protect it and where do we start?

Author Image

Co-Founder, Tortoise

Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, King’s College London; Director, UK in a Changing Europe Initiative

Leader of the True and Fair party

09.30-10.20 BST

British democracy: what do the public think?

When Tortoise conducted a poll among 10,000 British voters, the results made for grim reading. 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, and three quarters think MPs don’t care much or at all about their everyday concerns. It looks like British democracy isn’t working – but what else do the numbers tell us? And is London – a city pulled out of the EU against its will and with the highest child poverty rate in England – really favoured by the current system as much as many suggest?

Author Image

Co-Founder, Tortoise

Former President, YouGov

Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde; Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research

10.30-11.20 BST

Digital democracy: can tech bring power to the people?

Governments around the world are using everyday online platforms and other digital tools to achieve broader participation and contribute to richer public spaces for argument and debate. Technology can bring transparency and understanding to the legislative process, and give citizens more of a voice in local and national decision making. With countries like France, Brazil and Taiwan successfully opening up the democratic process with use of tech, is the UK at risk of falling behind? How conscious should we be of the risk of another Cambridge Analytica-style scandal? Does 21st-century technology integrate well with an 800-year-old institution, and is our political class ready, willing and able for a digital democracy and all that comes with it?

Author Image

Data Reporter, Tortoise

Author, The Digital Republic

Associate Director, Local Public Services, techUK

11.40-12.05 BST

In conversation with Darren McGarvey: has remote politics wrecked Britain? 

From poverty and policing, homelessness and overrun prisons to Grenfell and hostile environments, Britain has failed those who need the most help. There is one unifying theme that links all these afflictions: proximity. Proximity is how close we are to the action and how that affects how we assess, relate to and address whatever that action happens to be. Almost every job requires a level of experience and training with the notable exception of the most powerful people in the country – our political class. Could Britain’s problem be, not that there is a lot of inequality, but that for generations, a small group of people, who know little about it, have been charged with discussing, debating, and sorting it out?

Author Image

Editor and Partner, Tortoise

Author, How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain

12.10-13.00 BST

Can we bridge the generation gap? 

In our Democracy in Britain Poll, we asked people whether they thought that the government should help younger people a bit more, and older people a bit less – only 29 per cent agreed. Unsurprisingly, the results varied hugely depending on how old the respondents were. Older people overwhelmingly think that Britain is more democratic than their younger counterparts. With an ageing population and the cost of care spiralling, it’s the young who are being asked to pay for the old. How sustainable is a society in which two cohorts have almost completely different political and cultural values, face a different set of challenges, and lead, for the most part, almost entirely separate lives?

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Assistant News Editor, Tortoise

Councillor, London Borough of Hackney; CEO, My Life My Say

Author, Journalist and Acting CEO, Demos

Deputy Chair, British Youth Council

UK Head Delegate, Youth G7

13.10-14.00 BST

Does British democracy work for you? 

London’s been the target of plenty of populist messaging in recent years, but it’s also the English region with the highest child poverty rate, and is home to two of the country’s most deprived local authorities. Like Scotland and Northern Ireland, the city voted overwhelmingly to remain, and has been pulled out of the EU against its will. With London-bashing perhaps more popular than ever before, is it time to ask the capital how it feels for once?

Author Image

Editor and Partner, Tortoise

Deputy Leader, Women’s Equality Party

Chief Executive, Trust for London

Author, How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain