Fist fights on the floor of parliament. Sex scandals involving populist leaders. A revolving door of unstable governments. This is the unfortunate stereotype of Italian politics. It is therefore testament to how far the UK has sunk that The Economist magazine recently coined the phrase “Britaly” to describe us.
For those of us who follow politics closely, the last year has been a painful watch. Whether it’s sleaze and scandal under Boris Johnson – or incompetence and chaos with Liz Truss – politics in the UK has rarely felt so dysfunctional.
With Rishi Sunak now in charge it would be easy to write this period off as an aberration. But these political ruptures are not just temporary distractions. The outrage keeps coming: most recently Gavin Williamson, Suella Braverman. It is a sign that our politics is broken – and it leaves deep and lasting scars.
New polling from IPPR shows that two in three voters now say that politicians are “out for themselves” rather than serving “the interests of the country”. What’s more, this sentiment is a rare thing in British politics: a consensus amongst both Conservative and Labour; Leave and Remain.
Even more concerning than the level of trust in politics is the pace of change. IPPR asked this same question of voters last year. Since then, it has fallen by nine percentage points. For comparison, it took around seven years for the previous fall of a similar scale and 42 years for the one before that.
Why does this matter? There are two reasons. Firstly, declines in trust damage our democracy. As trust plummets, fewer voters turn out to vote (particularly people from already under-represented groups). Political polarisation widens and support for populist political parties and leaders goes up.
Secondly, politicians find it harder to govern. They struggle to gain a consensus within and between parties. Governments become less stable – falling in and out of office more regularly. They lack legitimacy in martialling the power of the state. In short, it becomes harder to address the big issues that need government action.
All this means that we must take free-falling trust seriously. The Conservative Party’s solution to this problem is simple: a new leader at the top of government to bring stability. This may have calmed the markets. But it cannot undo the deeper damage the last “year of chaos” has done to our politics.
Labour’s plan is similar in nature: they are calling for a general election and a Labour government. While an election is needed to address the current “legitimacy gap”, this is the second prime minister in a row without a personal mandate from the country – a change in the governing party won’t automatically solve our problems, either.
Trust in politics has been declining for decades – a new face or party at the top alone won’t change that. Instead, the evidence suggests that our politicians must pursue a much bolder course of action: a profound change in how our politics works to give citizens a bigger say in our society.
Four in five people in Britain say politicians poorly understand their lives. And only six per cent of people said voters have the greatest sway over public policy – compared to one in two who said political donors, businesses and lobbying groups did. Put simply: too many people feel that they are not represented and that their voices are not heard.
If we want trust to improve, we have to really “give back control”.
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This means passing more power to places and people themselves. This could take the form of new powers to elected mayors, but also the use of democratic innovations such as citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting, where voters get a direct say in how government money is spent.
But, in a representative democracy such as ours, MPs will – and should – always play a key role in decision making. For this to work, IPPR research shows we must start rebuilding trust in our representatives by ensuring they genuinely look and sound like the population they are representing, not just in terms of gender and race but also class.
Grasping the nettle of low and falling trust in politics is the right thing to do. It will not be easy. Trust is easily lost and hard to rebuild. But there is a prize at the end for the political party who takes it on. Because, a party that can convince voters that politics can improve their lives – and deliver on this – would likely dominate our political landscape for the next decade.
Harry Quilter-Pinner is the director of research and engagement at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)