The Independent View: Restore trust to reform democracy

The crisis over MPs’ expenses has shattered trust in politicians. Trust in Parliament has never been particularly high – it has now plummeted to new depths. Our long-standing scepticism as to the motives of politicians has turned into a strongly held conviction that ‘they’re all at it’.

The silver lining is that the crisis may have opened the way for much needed constitutional reform. The Lib Dems in particular have proposed a raft of constitutional reforms as a solution to the crisis. But are we really at a constitutional turning point? And is institutional reform a sufficient answer to the collapse of trust?

Gordon Brown’s statement yesterday does open the way for some important reforms, in particular to the way parliament itself works. Brown’s proposals include the independent regulation of MPs’ expenses and more freedom for select committees. Beyond parliamentary reform the speech was less committal – in particular on the Lords and the electoral system.

Nick Clegg has staked out the most radical set of proposals here, arguing for a new electoral system, fixed term parliaments, an elected upper house and more power for local government.

But is a full Charter 88-style package the answer to the collapse in trust? There are strong arguments in favour of electoral reform and an elected upper house – I happen to be in favour of both. What is not at all clear is that a parliament elected by PR would be any more trusted than the current legislature. In order to restore trust we need to look at the reasons why people don’t trust politicians and find politics so distasteful – and ensure that, whatever else it does, our reform programme addresses these.

We need to ask ourselves why we need politics and politicians and strengthen those aspects of our political system that are plainly in the public interest. For example, people still have respect for some aspects of MPs’ work – their constituency work or their scrutiny of legislation, for example. At the same time they disapprove of other aspects of political behaviour, such as petty partisan point scoring. We should therefore do more to boost those aspects of MPs’ work that command public respect.

The collapse in trust is also a product of a narrowing in the background and values of politicians, associated with the professionalisation of the political class. People are aware that we have a rising class of politicians largely trained in the think tanks or the media. As well as leading to politicians all looking and sounding very similar to one another, this also means that many politicians and the public at large see politics as a career rather than a vocation. We need to look again at pluralising the routes into politics to bring in a wider diversity of people – through stronger local government and opening up local party selection processes to a wider range of people.

We need a radical agenda for democratic reform – but it needs to address the reasons why public trust in politicians has collapsed. This means institutional reform – but of a kind that changes the behaviour and character of politicians and the wider political culture.

Rick Muir is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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4 Comments

  • Good posting. The public is not looking for politicians on the make. Lib Dems pushing PR are, I’m afraid, politicians on the make (even though they do of course have good as well as bad motives).

    Trust must come first. If we can’t regain trust, we won’t gain anything else!

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