MOST politicians who try to make the case for modernising the UK’s political system are missing the point, according to new IPPR research.
Instead of focusing primarily on principles, such as integrity and honesty, they should underscore the better social and economic conditions that would follow from devolving more power to the regions, changing the voting system or reforming the House of Lords – most notably, policies that are more responsive to voters’ needs.
The IPPR report reveals unprecedented levels of support for change, with almost three in five voters favouring large-scale political reform compared with only one in 17 (six per cent) saying reform is not needed. Distrust of the current system is higher among those on lower incomes or with fewer educational qualifications, researchers found.
Support for democratic reform is strongest in the UK’s former industrial heartlands, including the ‘red wall’ constituencies likely to be most fiercely contested at the next election. For example, more than 90 per cent of people in the former Labour safe seat of Burnley support reform. “Parties competing to win voters in these constituencies should take note of their overwhelming support for large scale democratic reform”, the report says.
Expectations of democracy remain high: nine out of 10 people consider it better than any other system of government, the report notes. But a survey of 8,000 people conducted by Focaldata, on behalf of IPPR, found:
- Only two in five trust the current political system, and only one in three trust parliament to fulfil its core function of acting in the best interests of people across the UK.
- An overwhelming majority support reform – 31 per cent said the current system needs ‘completely’ reforming; 26 per cent backed reform ‘to a large extent’; and a further 32 per cent favoured ‘some’ reform. Only six per cent said the system did not need change.
- People living in the north of England or in South Wales are most likely to support change. An interactive map published on IPPR’s website alongside the report reveals the extent of support by constituency across England, Scotland and Wales.
IPPR also held focus groups in Winchester, Hartlepool, Birmingham, and High Peak. Issues such as the voting system to elect MPs, the unelected House of Lords and devolution of power emerged at the top of citizens’ democratic concerns.
Asked to suggest one word to summarise their perceptions of the state of democracy in the UK, participants used words such as “chaos”, “dysfunctional”, “corrupt” and “broken”.
The report argues that politicians need to overcome the temptation to downplay democratic reform when considering a programme for government. Questioning why it should be a priority during the current cost-of-living and broader economic crisis is to misunderstand profoundly what lies behind the British state’s continued failure to deliver, the report says.
Researchers tested four approaches to discussing the need for reform, to gauge the most effective way to engage with voters on the issue. They concluded that framing democratic reform as a means to deliver policy more responsive to citizens’ interests is most powerful; talking about it in that way would increase the likelihood of someone voting for a party advocating political reform by six per cent.
That makes it significantly more effective than using language focused on three alternatives: the need to rein in narrow elites who have captured power; to force politicians to act with greater integrity; or to tackle the perception that politicians are not representative enough of society at large, in either their views or experiences.
Dr Parth Patel, senior research fellow at IPPR, said: “The ‘partygate’ affair sent trust in politics tumbling to record lows. But it also raised the salience of the issue: for most of the past year, the public has perceived a lack of faith in politics as a more important issue facing this country than immigration levels.
“An overwhelming majority of people want to see large-scale political reform. Politicians promising to build a better Britain need not just to find the right policy prescription for today, but to change how policy is made in the future.”
Harry Quilter-Pinner, IPPR director of research and engagement, said: “The public are rightly angry about the state of politics in this country. Politicians urgently need to build support for a bold democratic reform agenda that can address growing distrust and disengagement amongst voters.
“But, in making the case for reform politicians too often miss the point. Voters do see more and better democracy as a good in its own right. But, more importantly, they see it as a means to an end: better policy that addresses their concerns and improves things for their family and community. This is the case politicians should be making now.”
* Read: Talking politics: Building support for democratic reform here.
* See the interactive map here.
* Source: Institute for Public Policy Research