Public trust in politicians and political institutions is at an all-time low. At the start of the year a key survey found that trust in the establishment was woeful: only 26% of people surveyed trusted politicians, a fall of 10% from last year. This isn’t new. Data shows that trust in politicians has been low since it started being recorded in 1986. But if the trend continues then in the coming years the public’s faith in our democracy could be all but gone.
Modern political contempt in the UK probably began with the notorious MPs expenses scandal. Lately, with a backdrop of a divisive vote to leave the EU and a weakened government, the sexual harassment scandal has dominated Westminster politics and is just another item in the list of failings in British politics, including continued gaffes from Boris Johnson and the resignation (sacking) of cabinet member Priti Patel.
Sexual harassment exists in almost every industry and profession so is not unique to politics, but public servants have (or at least should have) a high level of expectation and accountability held to them which makes this situation more shocking and depressing. For example, many have asked why Michael Fallon’s behaviour has been considered serious enough to see him resign from the cabinet but not to stand down as an MP. The people he represents are left questioning his, but simply have to accept he will remain in office. But he’s not the only one. Many politicians and staff, from various parties in different institutions, are under investigation.
So much depends on the response. Parties are doubling down on internal procedures and posting updated codes of conduct on their website. The PM has called for a “new culture of respect” and has set up a working group in Westminster to look at changing the system of dealing with complaints of sexual abuse, but it has already faced criticism for being too soft. If the response is not meaningful then nothing will change.
Politicians rightfully have a high standard to meet, but sometimes fatigue and distrust from the public means that they are not held accountable: we shake our heads, but the rapid news cycle gobbles up any real impetus for change. Some people just expect these scandals: it’s not right but it’s ok – the politicians are untouchable and people feel so far removed from politics it’s as though it’s none of their business.
Most individual MPs (as well as other elected representatives) are subservient, conscientious and genuinely care about the people they represent. Something, somewhere within the archaic and elitist political institutions, is going wrong and British politics as a whole is losing touch with people.
Which is why British politics must be recalled.
Not recalled in the way MPs would be if there was an important vote in parliament or another election. But recalled by the people to re-engage with politics again and making it work for them. Britons must collectively demand better from all the people that we elect, and protest louder when they let us down. Politics is often felt as though it is done to people and not by them or for them, as it should be. British politics isn’t working; so we send it back to be fixed.
Radical change is needed.
Firstly, ways to make politicians genuinely accountable for their actions. People should be able to demand by-elections if their MP falls short of the mark; it’s not acceptable for them to sit in parliament as an independent when their behaviour has seen them kicked out of their party.
A new parliament could be created that is fit for purpose in the 21st century, one that could sit all the MPs for a start; and why not move it out of the London bubble into cities such as Manchester or Glasgow. Every opportunity should be taken to encourage cross-party cooperation, a proportional voting system would be a good start: more votes count, less safe seats, could force parties to listen, compromise, and reach a consensus.
Politicians are complacent with a system that appears to offer short-term benefits but in the long run is damaging our democracy, a system which rarely sees real accountability. But we can demand better.
By Chris Park