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From Our Practical Politics Blog

Letter to party leaders about restoring trust and understanding in politics

I have written to seven party leaders to ask what measures they will take to promote political understanding and revitalise democracy in the next Parliament.

Five years ago we asked each party leader what they would do to restore trust and participation in politics. David Cameron and Caroline Lucas both replied. Mr Cameron acknowledged that our political system is broken, that people have too little control over the decisions that affect their lives and “changing the way we do politics” through a “sweeping redistribution of power” to create a big society (read the reply here).

The coalition government has introduced greater transparency in spending, the Localism Act, training for community organisers, elected Police and Crime Commissioners, more elected mayors, campaigns for voter registration and other measures to empower citizens.

But trust in politics and politicians has still fallen. The biggest rise in political participation was the Scottish referendum to leave the United Kingdom’s political system entirely. A YouGov poll last autumn showed that less than a quarter of people trust their MP to represent them in Parliament. In December Ipsos MORI showed that just 16% trust politicians to tell the truth compared with 22% who trust journalists and estate agents, 31% who trust bankers and 55% who trust civil servants. Significantly, younger people under 35 were more likely to trust politicians than other age groups.

This is not a new problem. Trust in politicians has never risen much above 20% since 1983. Scepticism is also a necessary and healthy part of democratic politics. But the lack of trust in our political system and its ability to solve problems is deeply troubling. Just a third of people feel that the system of governing Britain works well.

The past five years have revealed too many examples of abuse of power in many different areas of our society over a long period, in care homes, hospitals, our financial system and the police, where authorities have failed the public and vulnerable people. The shocking revelations about widespread child sexual exploitation, tax evasion, rigging of Libor, the Hillsborough Inquiry and Francis Report are just some examples of the harm caused by abuse of power. The Review of the NHS Hospitals Complaints System by Ann Clwyd MP and Professor Tricia Hart (2013) is another example from just part of the system. They mention four previous reports going back to 1994, which did not have the required effect. They say: “Patients would like to see a service that provides advocacy, representation and support to those who need and want it. They want to know there is someone to speak for them if necessary, and help them to make sense of a complicated system.” (p22)

This expresses the essence of democracy: advocacy, representation and support, someone to speak for you if necessary, and to help you make sense of a complicated system.

An interconnected world, with instant global communications and a population of two billion more people within 30 years, means the system will become even more complex. International trade, finance and climate change could create more instability, migration and conflict. At the same time, rapid innovation of all kinds is creating immense opportunities for people everywhere.

In this context, politically capable, engaged citizens and a more accountable, responsive and effective system will give the nation a massive advantage. The more people can voice concerns, identify problems and come up with solutions, the better for everyone. Like competitive markets, political challenge is uncomfortable for established authorities. But it exposes bad practice, promotes innovation and drives improvement at all levels, from the very local to the global.

Democracy Matters is a non-partisan alliance for learning practical politics which does take a stand on particular issues, parties or constitutional reforms, on which our members have many different views. But we share a concern about the ability of people to have an effective voice and take part in politics as equal citizens.

Many of our members were involved in drawing up the attached ‘Declaration for Democracy’, which we discussed with the three main parties.

We are now writing to ask: what will you do to promote political participation as a public good and to strengthen democracy?

In particular, we would welcome measures to

  1. Make it easier for people to take part in politics
  2. Close the participation gap
  3. Promote learning for democracy

We have listed a wide range of low cost measures which local and central government can take to improve political participation, some of which were started in this Parliament but cannot be taken for granted in the next.

Many of our members also hope that the new Parliament will continue to have a Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to work on the complex constitutional challenges facing the country.

Finally, I hope we can count on cross-party support for a non-partisan Commission on Learning for Democracy, as set out with our Declaration, to look at the knowledge and abilities needed to take part in politics and the best ways for education providers, broadcasters, Parliament and others to help the people of Britain make sense of a complicated system.

We look forward to hearing your plans to help people understand how the system works, how to have a more effective voice and restore trust in politics.

The 800th anniversary of the Magna Charta is a suitable occasion to start a new era in our country’s democratic development.

The case for a constitutional convention

I did not mention that the next Parliament is due to end with the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath proclaiming Scottish independence in 1320. It could be a very stormy year for democracy in the UK. A proper Constitutional Convention could be the best way forward (see previous blog).

Titus Alexander, Convener, Democracy Matters

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