Constitutional reform / Introduction

Constitutional reform

Constitutional reform: a recipe
for restoring faith in our democracy?

  • The first coalition since the Second World War is itself an innovation at Westminster. But it also came to power committed to an ambitious programme of constitutional reform – including fixed-term parliaments, directly elected mayors and local police commissioners, and the wider use of referendums. Could any of these changes reverse the long-term decline in public trust in government?

    SS_Const _Ref _Intro _Left

    Highlights

  • Attitudes to politicians

    People express considerable scepticism about politicians and government. The proportion who would prefer Britain to be governed by a coalition rather than a single party has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded.

    Fewer than one in ten (9%) trust British politicians “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, compared with 58% who say they trust the police.

    SS_Const _Ref _Fact1

    Highlights

  • Attitudes to politicians

    People express considerable scepticism about politicians and government. The proportion who would prefer Britain to be governed by a coalition rather than a single party has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded.

    The proportion favouring a coalition has fallen from 40% in 2010 to 28% in 2011, while support for single-party government has risen from 48% to 63%.

    SS_Const _Ref _Fact2

    Highlights

  • Popular reforms

    Most people favour the wider use of referendums on a range of issues and ballots on ‘recalling’ MPs guilty of wrongdoing. They are more ambivalent about new forms of representative democracy, including elected mayors and local police commissioners.

    88% support the Coalition’s proposal that voters should have the right to force MPs who have “broken the rules” to resign and fight a by-election. However, as many as 58% would like to go further and be able to recall an MP who is “not doing a very good job”.

    SS_Const _Ref _Fact3

    Highlights

  • Popular reforms

    Most people favour the wider use of referendums on a range of issues and ballots on ‘recalling’ MPs guilty of wrongdoing. They are more ambivalent about new forms of representative democracy, including elected mayors and local police commissioners.

    65% think elected police commissioners would ensure the police focus on crimes that are of greatest public concern. However, 38% think that police commissioners would bring about too much political interference, while only 29% disagree.

    SS_Const _Ref _Fact4

    Highlights

Introduction

The last Labour government came to power in 1997 acutely concerned about an apparently widespread lack of regard for and trust in politics and politicians. Tony Blair had argued in opposition that "so low is popular esteem for politicians and the system we operate that there is now little authority for us to use unless and until we first succeed in regaining it" (Blair, 1996). The Party's 1997 manifesto promised to "rebuild this bond of trust between government and the people" (Labour Party, 1997). Central to fulfilling Labour's ambition was a wide-ranging programme of constitutional reform. Voters in some parts of the country - notably Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London - were given control over new, devolved tiers of government. The representation of hereditary peers in the Lords was curtailed. In addition, however, there was also a striking emphasis on transparency and regulation (Curtice, 2011). Government was made more open and transparent by introducing new freedom of information rules, while political funding was exposed to greater public scrutiny and regulated more tightly. Transparency was seen as an antidote both to the perception and the occurrence of political misbehaviour.

Yet after 12 years in power, Labour - along with other political parties - was caught in a wide-ranging scandal over MPs' expenses. Many a politician was accused of having sought to maximise their ability to benefit from the financial support that MPs could claim for running two homes. A few were eventually found guilty of false accounting. Labour's hopes of restoring trust and confidence were dealt a body blow through revelations that, ironically, came to light through the passage of its own freedom of information legislation.

Unsurprisingly, the scandal generated renewed interest in ways of rekindling citizens' trust in their elected representatives. In 2010 history repeated itself and a new administration, a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, came to power committed to restoring the public's trust in government through constitutional reforms. The Conservatives' election manifesto talked of citizens being "detached from the political process, devoid of trust in the political classes, and disillusioned with our system of government" and promised to "restore trust in our political system" (Conservative Party, 2010: 65, ix). Their partners in government, the Liberal Democrats, described the political system as "rotten" (Liberal Democrat Party, 2010: 87), while the Party's leader, Nick Clegg, called for a wholesale "revamp" of the political system (Clegg, 2009), declaring that his aim was to persuade people "to put your faith in politics once again" (Clegg, 2010).

However, the new government's proposed reform programme had a somewhat different character from that of its predecessor. Although, like Labour, the Coalition contemplated changing the system of representative, party-based politics, its proposals, which included a referendum on the Commons voting system and a wholly or partly elected House of Lords, focused more on politics at Westminster than on the governance of the devolved territories. At the local level radical changes to the nature of the electoral process were envisaged with the promotion and extension of 'presidential' style local political offices, in the form of directly elected mayors and police commissioners, whose elections were expected to be about personality as much as party politics. Most strikingly, however, the government proposed to depart from the norms of representative democracy by giving voters a direct say in certain decisions. A variety of referendums were to be held at both national and local level, while voters were to be given the ability to 'recall' their MP. Instead of simply opening up politics to public scrutiny as Labour had done, it was now to be subjected as well to the discipline of greater public involvement.

But in so far as it is implemented, is the Coalition's proposed approach to reform any more likely to succeed in restoring public trust? For that to have any prospect of happening, we suggest that two important conditions would need to be satisfied. Firstly, the reforms should be popular with the public at large. Secondly, the changes would need to have particular appeal for those whose trust in the existing system was particularly low.

Existing research offers reason to be hopeful on the second count at least. Those with low levels of trust have been found to be particularly keen on the idea of direct democracy (Bromley et al., 2001; Dalton et al., 2001; Bowler et al., 2007). It has been argued, too, that levels of trust and confidence tend to be higher in states in the US where electors can insist that policy propositions are put to a popular vote (Bowler and Donovan, 2002; Smith and Tolbert, 2004; though see also Dyck, 2009; Dyck and Lascher, 2009). So perhaps the coalition government's reform programme really is better suited than that of its predecessor to the task of addressing public scepticism (see also Bogdanor, 2009).

This chapter uses data collected by the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey to consider whether this is, indeed, the case. We begin by looking at levels of trust in the political system and assess whether the Coalition is correct in its assessment that they are all very low. Thereafter we consider how popular the government's proposed reforms are among the public in general, bearing in mind that the formation of a coalition government was itself an innovation for the post-war period. Finally, we examine the appeal the reforms have for those who have the lowest levels of trust in the current political system in particular.

Notes
  1. This picture of low trust in politicians relative to other professional actors, such as the police, is confirmed by data from other polling organisations, such as MORI's 'Trust in Professions' surveys (Ipsos-MORI, 2011).
  2. Readings are indicated by data marker; the line indicates an overall pattern but where there is no data marker the line cannot be taken as a reading for that year.
  3. These figures have been collated from various House of Commons Library papers supplemented by data from the New Local Government Network.
  4. Nor have attitudes to elected mayors improved since their introduction in 2000. The same questions about speaking up for the area, getting things done and giving too much power to a single person were also asked on British Social Attitudes in 1998 and 2000. The proportions agreeing that mayors speak up for the area and help gets things done were no higher in 2011 than in 1998, while the proportion agreeing that mayors give too much power to a single person fell by only 10 percentage points, from 45 per cent in 1998 to 35 per cent in 2011.
  5. Two other of England's largest cities, Leicester and Liverpool, had previously decided to introduce a directly elected mayor without holding a referendum. In four other referendums on directly elected mayors held since the 2010 general election, the proposal was approved in two cases (Salford and Tower Hamlets) and rejected in a third (Great Yarmouth). Doncaster voted in May 2012 to keep its elected mayor.
  6. The Coalition's proposal is that a referendum should be held when a council wishes to increase the level of council tax by more than a limit specified by the government. To simplify matters, we couched this as referring to an above inflation increase. Note though that voters are not necessarily keen that decisions about the council tax should routinely be referred to them. Only 43 per cent say that decisions about the council tax should be made by voters in a referendum, while 52 per cent would prefer the decisions to be made by their elected council. It would appear that, while voters are happy to have a referendum as a potential bulwark against a particularly large increase in council tax, they are not sure they trust their fellow citizens to make decisions about the tax on a regular basis.
  7. Strictly speaking this provision would apply to custodial sentences of 12 months or less, as longer sentences already result in automatic disqualification from membership of the Commons.
  8. The full question wording was:

    It has been suggested that sometimes voters should be able to force their local MP to resign and fight a by-election. First of all, say that the MP has broken the rules. How much do you agree or disagree that in those circumstances voters should be able to force their MP to resign?

    Respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".
  9. The full question wording was:

    And what if the MP had not broken any rules, but voters thought he or she was not doing a very good job? Should voters be able to force their MP to resign?

    Again respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale.
  10. The scale was created by adding the scores (ranging from 1 to 4) across the three items and dividing the resulting total by three. Multi-item measures of complex concepts like trust are usually held to be more reliable and valid than single item measures (Zeller and Carmines, 1980: 48-52; Heath and Martin, 1997). Cronbach's alpha for this particular scale is 0.90.
  • Download chapter
  • Authors
  • Notes
    1. This picture of low trust in politicians relative to other professional actors, such as the police, is confirmed by data from other polling organisations, such as MORI's 'Trust in Professions' surveys (Ipsos-MORI, 2011).
    2. Readings are indicated by data marker; the line indicates an overall pattern but where there is no data marker the line cannot be taken as a reading for that year.
    3. These figures have been collated from various House of Commons Library papers supplemented by data from the New Local Government Network.
    4. Nor have attitudes to elected mayors improved since their introduction in 2000. The same questions about speaking up for the area, getting things done and giving too much power to a single person were also asked on British Social Attitudes in 1998 and 2000. The proportions agreeing that mayors speak up for the area and help gets things done were no higher in 2011 than in 1998, while the proportion agreeing that mayors give too much power to a single person fell by only 10 percentage points, from 45 per cent in 1998 to 35 per cent in 2011.
    5. Two other of England's largest cities, Leicester and Liverpool, had previously decided to introduce a directly elected mayor without holding a referendum. In four other referendums on directly elected mayors held since the 2010 general election, the proposal was approved in two cases (Salford and Tower Hamlets) and rejected in a third (Great Yarmouth). Doncaster voted in May 2012 to keep its elected mayor.
    6. The Coalition's proposal is that a referendum should be held when a council wishes to increase the level of council tax by more than a limit specified by the government. To simplify matters, we couched this as referring to an above inflation increase. Note though that voters are not necessarily keen that decisions about the council tax should routinely be referred to them. Only 43 per cent say that decisions about the council tax should be made by voters in a referendum, while 52 per cent would prefer the decisions to be made by their elected council. It would appear that, while voters are happy to have a referendum as a potential bulwark against a particularly large increase in council tax, they are not sure they trust their fellow citizens to make decisions about the tax on a regular basis.
    7. Strictly speaking this provision would apply to custodial sentences of 12 months or less, as longer sentences already result in automatic disqualification from membership of the Commons.
    8. The full question wording was:

      It has been suggested that sometimes voters should be able to force their local MP to resign and fight a by-election. First of all, say that the MP has broken the rules. How much do you agree or disagree that in those circumstances voters should be able to force their MP to resign?

      Respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".
    9. The full question wording was:

      And what if the MP had not broken any rules, but voters thought he or she was not doing a very good job? Should voters be able to force their MP to resign?

      Again respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale.
    10. The scale was created by adding the scores (ranging from 1 to 4) across the three items and dividing the resulting total by three. Multi-item measures of complex concepts like trust are usually held to be more reliable and valid than single item measures (Zeller and Carmines, 1980: 48-52; Heath and Martin, 1997). Cronbach's alpha for this particular scale is 0.90.
  • Related links