A Democracy in Need of Repair

Luke Tryl - October 2021

The party conference season is over, the speeches, the slogans and (mercifully) the soggy sandwiches are all too quickly forgotten. What lingers on however, is a pronounced level of public distrust as to whether politicians will really deliver on any of the promises made.

James Eades Ptdyodqcx9u Unsplash

Delivering on Promises

This sense of distrust is one of the key findings from our extensive research looking at what the public want from our politics, based on months of polling and focus groups right across the country. There are plenty of positives, the vast majority of those we surveyed are proud of our democracy and Britain’s democratic values but, strikingly, a clear majority also told us the ‘political elite’ just makes the rules for itself and doesn’t care about the public.  

That analysis published in ‘Democratic Repair: What Britons want from their democracy’ finds that despite their commitment to democratic principles, people feel increasingly frustrated by a democratic system that isn’t delivering for them, and let down by a politics which falls short of their expectations. As a sign of how deep-set the problem is, our findings suggest two out of three people now think our democracy is ‘rigged’ to serve only the political class.   

That matters to all parties, but perhaps especially for politicians who promise that they will deliver visible improvements in our daily lives. There is no doubt that people living in communities long neglected and overlooked desperately want the promise of investment and regeneration to be delivered, they just doubt it will happen. In other words, if you want to ‘level up’ you’ll need to first ‘level with’, by building trust and overcoming a large dose of scepticism before you even start trying to convince people that you can make significant and tangible changes in their everyday life. 

Last week we held a focus group in the ‘red wall’ seat of Heywood and Middleton just after the conferences were over, playing clips from both the Labour and the Conservative gatherings. 

Their feedback should make for sobering reading for all parties. Hardly anyone had seen coverage of the conferences, only two of the group had voted at the last election and no-one knew the seat had changed hands in 2019. When they saw clips from the two-party leader’s speeches, their main take away was that both were simply putting on a show. Perhaps more worrying still, when we asked the group to give an example of politicians making a positive impact, we were met with silence. 

That disengagement and disillusionment isn’t unique to Heywood – it transcends red, blue and purple walls alike. That isn’t just bad in and of itself, as the US showed in January, disenchantment and disillusionment from those who feel left behind can be channelled into violence and extremism.  But a lack of faith in democracy creates subtler malignancies too, as people simply stop listening to those in positions of power – it’s no surprise for instance that we found those most disengaged from democracy were also the least likely to say they would get the Covid vaccine. 

The only cure for that malaise is to show people that politics and democracy can and does work for them.  Tangible, visible ‘levelling up’, or put more simply, delivering on promises will not just lead to welcome improvements in public services, but will also be a significant step towards restoring trust in our democracy and repairing divisions. Ensuring we see results in our daily lives is the best way to show that our beloved British democracy is working for us again. 

 

First published on 11 October 2021 in The Times Red Box.