Trust is the grease on the wheels of a democratic society
Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy which campaigns for real democracy in the UK, protected by a written constitution.
So reliable is the stream of scandal coming out of government these days, that the next sleaze or cronyism story is a question of when not if.
We’re just over 2 months into 2023 and this year alone we’ve had questions around the appointment of the BBC Chairman, Nadim Zahawi’s taxes, an ongoing bullying investigation into the Justice Secretary, and a former Prime Minister rumoured to have nominated his own father for a Knighthood or a Peerage.
It’s no coincidence that trust in politicians is falling at an alarming rate. Polling shows that trust in the Prime Minister and parliament is down since 2021, when it was already low. Over half of those asked said that they distrust the Prime Minister and parliament to act in their best interests.
We need to take this seriously, because trust in politics is a requisite of legitimate government. When people stop trusting democratic institutions, that creates space for populism, autocracy and polarisation. Governments also need trust and buy-in from the people if they are to tackle long-term challenges like the climate crisis.
In short, trust is the grease on the wheels of a democratic society: mostly invisible, easy to overlook, but once it’s gone, the whole machine begins to seize up.
Many argue that the recent proliferation of sleaze in government is simply part of Boris Johnson’s legacy. With the grownups back in charge, we can return to business as usual.
Others say that this is just a symptom of the last days of a government that has lost any purpose. If any party is in power long enough, complacency sets in and standards start to slip. A change of government will flush out the system, before the whole cycle starts again.
But this problem is far bigger than individual politicians and parties. I think the problem – and its solution – is deeply embedded in the way our system works.
A two-party system enabled by First Past the Post is part of it. So too is our outdated House of Lords, stuffed with cronies and hereditary peers. And of course our unwritten constitution leaves plenty of loopholes and grey areas to be exploited.
Those reforms are fundamental and necessary, but will take years of careful planning and political courage to enact. I’m all for long-term, ambitious thinking, but I can also see that our political system is haemorrhaging trust and credibility at an alarming rate. We also need action in the here and now.
That’s why I propose 4 actions that any government could begin working on tomorrow to address the trust deficit in our politics.
An independent Ethics Advisor with real powers
The position of Ethics Advisor to the Prime Minister’s is a toothless one. They have no power to start investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister, and the findings of their recommendations are always advisory.
We need an ethics advisor who can operate independently of elected officials, and whose judgements carry consequences.
End cronyism in the House of Lords
The House of Lords is an undemocratic, unrepresentative body that needs full reform. Life Peers, chosen for their expertise and commitment to public service, have quickly lost credibility as successive Prime Ministers have abused the system to appoint their friends and colleagues.
The House of Lords Appointments Commission is supposed to vet candidates for the job, but once again their findings are only advisory and can be ignored.
We must stop this already bloated house expanding further by giving the Appointments Commission real powers to block unsuitable candidates.
Restrict MPs’ 2nd jobs to prevent more scandals
Being an MP is a full-time job. MPs are elected by their constituents to represent them in Parliament. So it reflects badly on all MPs when even one is found to be neglecting their duties by moonlighting elsewhere.
We’ve also seen some really serious cases where MPs are suspected of using their position in Parliament to lobby on behalf of their second employer. This must stop.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why an MP may have a second job, like maintaining professional qualifications, so I do not want to see an outright ban. But I do think there should be a cap on the hours an MP can spend boosting their £84,144 annual salary.
Call time on part-time MPs
While some MPs may be juggling multiple roles, others seem to struggle to turn up even for one job.
In my experience, the vast majority of MPs are hard working and highly dedicated. But in the last few months alone we’ve seen two high profile cases of MPs shirking their duties to constituents.
I’m thinking of Matt Hancock leaving the people of West Suffolk without representation when he spent weeks filming a reality TV show, and Boris Johnson taking multiple holidays while parliament was sitting.
If your MP goes away, you are left without representation in Parliament. If you’re unhappy about that, you’ll have to wait until the next General Election to voice your displeasure at the ballot box. As anyone who lives in a so-called “safe seat” will know, this strategy is about as effective as howling into a gale. The chances are that your MP will be re-elected regardless.
That’s why I think the Recall of MPs Act 2015 should be updated to call time on part-time MPs. Constituents whose MP is repeatedly absent from parliament, without good reason, should be able to trigger a recall petition which, if successful, would trigger a by-election. This would send a message that constituents have the power to fight back when they feel taken for granted by their own MP.
Fairness and accountability
Trust is easy to lose and hard to win. We’ve seen in recent years how the actions of a few rogue politicians can destroy confidence in the entire system.
Some argue that the solution is to change the politicians. I don’t agree.
Like it or not, sleaze and cronyism will always be with us. I strongly believe that the vast majority of MPs are hard working and dedicated public servants, but the actions of a few are more than enough to tarnish the reputation of the entire political class.
This is why we need to look at the bigger picture. To clean up our politics, we must update the system that regulates the behaviour of politicians. This is the only way we can restore a strong sense of fairness and accountability to our politics.
The suggestions I make here are not difficult or complicated. Any Prime Minister could start to implement them tomorrow. They would make a real difference to the way people feel about politics and politicians. Who will rise to the challenge?