The People are the Masters
by Andrew Hawkins, Chairman

Last night Channel 5 held a debate on whether our politicians are up to the job. At the start of the show, host Jeremy Vine talked the audience through the results of a new Savanta ComRes poll commissioned by ITN Productions and Channel 5. The findings were so appalling that they elicited an audible gasp in the studio.

We have of course seen plenty of negative poll findings before. Back in January, Savanta ComRes polling showed that only one in 20 thought Parliament was emerging from Brexit ‘in a good light’, although back then we couldn’t know that Parliament was not ‘emerging’ from Brexit at all.

Last night’s poll however shows a far more visceral and harsh reaction to Parliament’s failure to get out of the Brexit quagmire:

  • 77% say their trust in UK politicians has decreased since the Brexit vote, while just three percent say it has increased.
  • When asked which is of most importance to politicians, only seven percent say “their constituents’ interests” and 16% say “their country’s interests”. In comparison, more than half (52%) think MPs’ personal interests are most important.
  • Fewer than one in ten (9%) believe politicians in the UK are honest or trustworthy, and only 11% think they are good at their job.

The worrying link here is between competence and trust. Voters do not merely think politicians are incapable of sorting out the UK’s problems, and in particular Brexit. Rather, they assume that this is as much an issue of dishonesty and self-serving ambition as it is about incompetence.

Understandably then, voters want to see politicians punished for letting them down. Eight in ten believe that more severe penalties for MPs found guilty of breaking rules on behaviour or standards would improve UK politics, and a similar proportion said the same of introducing penalties for any MP found to be sharing disinformation such as fake news and false claims.

By a ratio of ten to one, voters think that making it easier for constituencies to recall their MPs would improve politics (compared to ‘not improve’), and by a ratio of seven to one the same was said of forcing by-elections when MPs change parties.

The fix we have got into is that too many MPs still appear oblivious to the anger which was there back in 2016 when the Referendum blew apart the status quo. And that anger has been a long time brewing, as Jeremy Paxman reminded us last night in his Channel 5 documentary charmingly entitled “Why are our politicians so cr#p?”.

One solution is constitutional change. Once regarded as too technical, dull and irrelevant to people’s lives to make it a retail political issue, the public are much keener now on innovations which would hold MPs to greater account. We found, for example, 42% of voters think capping MPs to a fixed number of years in Parliament would improve politics and 63% say the same of linking MPs’ pay to performance – including their attendance rate.

From other polling we know too that there is strong support for reforming the electoral system, reforming the House of Lords (the second largest legislature in the world to the Chinese People’s Congress, although less democratic), overhauling the honours system and enhancing devolved powers.

This sentiment provides the context in which a General Election is likely to be held in just 41 days’ time. Parliamentary candidates would do well to have in their minds Tony Blair’s words in his address to Labour MPs back in 1997: “We are not the masters. The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people. We will never forget that”. Well, the public have not forgotten that, but they seem to think you have.