Our politics is plagued by a failure of accountability

Accountability and integrity, as well as honesty, selflessness and leadership, demand of our politicians that they own up to their mistakes

Palace of Westminster

Tom Brake is Director of Unlock Democracy

The coarseness of political debate is again in the headlines. Conservative Party HQ were quick to rebut criticism of Rishi Sunak’s remarks at Prime Minister’s Questions, arguing that his ‘joke’ was taken out of context. Others suggest this was another misstep from a Prime Minister unable to think on his feet.

Either way, the absence (at the time of writing) of an apology from Number 10, speaks loudly to a deeper malaise in our politics – the unconstrained slide in the standards we now expect from those we elect. Our politics is plagued by a failure of accountability.

The first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life outlined the Seven Principles of Public Life, or The Nolan Principles as they are more commonly known. These are: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, and Leadership.

Rishi Sunak, upon becoming Prime Minister, promised to lead a government of integrity, professionalism and accountability. Would not issuing an apology – a recognition that sometimes, in politics as in life, things are said that, if we had our time again, we would not have said – be to demonstrate precisely those qualities?

Accountability and integrity, as well as honesty, selflessness and leadership, demand of our politicians that they own up to their mistakes. They also demand of us, the public, and of the media, that we regard apologies, or for that matter owning up to policy u-turns, as good faith expressions of reflection and reconsideration – as we would in any other context.

This is, of course, not to exculpate politicians who fail to demonstrate these qualities – these are standards we have every right to demand. But it is a two-way street: reconciliation can only happen between two parties.  We have to accept that politicians make mistakes, and our attitudes can help to foster the conditions that encourage politicians to admit, in the spirit of openness, when they have got it wrong.

Depressingly, Rishi Sunak’s comments at PMQs seem less like a mistake. One could forgive the occasional misstep, but this represents a pattern of behaviour. Too often we have seen questionable rhetoric from him and other senior politicians. The parties, too, are similarly culpable. The grotesque social media attack ads we have seen, from both sides, herald an especially nasty election campaign, and do nothing to enhance the sullied reputation of politics.

Which brings me to Liz Truss and PopCon. Fronting this new faction(?), sect(?), interest group(?) – take your pick – is Mark Littlewood, would-be Baron Littlewood, the former Director of the opaquely funded Institute for Economic Affairs, whom Liz Truss sought to put in the House of Lords. Although Liz Truss failed in that particular endeavour, she did manage to appoint one peer for every 1.5 days she spent as Prime Minister – 32 in total during a 49-day stint in office.

The sight of the UK’s shortest-serving PM handing out peerages to supporters and friends is emblematic of how far below the ideals of the Nolan Principles our political system has sunk. Add this to the furore around Baroness Michelle Mone’s role in the PPE fiasco, another case I fear of favours for friends, and the effect on public trust is corrosive.

Yet come next month’s Budget, as we saw at the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor may decide to prioritise sleights of hand for party political gain – scrapping inheritance tax, a scheme that affects fewer than 4% of estates, has been mooted – rather than an objective assessment of the long-term interests of the whole country. Another Nolan Principle bites the dust.

Some, myself included, would argue that part of this is down to the perverse incentives of our warped electoral system, but that is an argument for another day.

I do not believe, however, it is simply a matter of replacing one party with another and everything will return to normal. We will still need to take serious measures to improve the ways in which politics is conducted.

In fairness, Labour, who are most likely to form the next government, have some promising proposals for tackling the decline in public standards. Angela Rayner’s plans for an Ethics and Integrity Commission are an excellent platform on which to build, but Labour must go further if that response is to be credible.

Instead, though, it seems the leadership is intent on rowing back on Labour’s pledge to replace the House of Lords.

Cutting the number of hereditary peers and introducing a stricter appointments process are changes we would welcome.

But we are still left with a complete lack of accountability and legitimacy in the second chamber of our Parliament. 700 unelected peers – many of whom have been appointed simply for being party donors or political allies – will remain, as will the power for Prime Ministers to appoint more of their chums in future.

Six months ago, Labour’s National Policy Forum committed to establishing a “second chamber that … is reflective of the regions and nations with elected representatives rather than political appointees.”

If Keir Starmer has genuinely changed his mind about abolishing the House of Lords, then he should demonstrate the leadership and integrity we all want to see in a potential future Prime Minister and be open, honest and accountable and admit he’s had a change of heart. Not to do so will only entrench the public perception that standards in public life are a thing of the past.

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