Making social science accessible

01 Feb 2024

Constitution and governance

A Commission led by Dominic Grieve has proposed a series of reforms aimed at restoring public confidence in UK decision-makers. With trust in politicians worryingly low, Alex Walker argues that tightening up the conduct rules for politicians is necessary but not sufficient – political integrity requires more than good behaviour.

The next UK general election will be fought against a background of very low trust in politicians. In Ipsos’ latest poll of trust in different professions, only 9% of voters said they trust politicians to tell the truth (down from 12% in 2022). That’s the lowest it’s been since they started asking the question in 1983. It’s a problem for democracy when most people say they’ve lost faith in their elected representatives, and the public even rank this lack of trust as one of the most pressing issues facing the UK.

Without public trust, politicians lack the buy-in to implement contested and difficult policies. And when people think politicians are all the same, they stop engaging in the process or vote for ‘anti-system’ parties. And there’s less incentive for unscrupulous politicians to act with integrity if citizens believe the worst of all of them.

There’s been no shortage of scandal in recent years. Boris Johnson’s failure to be straight with the public – over what happened in No 10 during the pandemic, Chris Pincher, his finances, and more – eventually proved his undoing. But the Greensill lobbying scandal, Owen Paterson’s paid advocacy, MPs’ lucrative second jobs, and repeated bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct stories haven’t helped the public standing of politicians either.

According to Chris Bryant’s recent book, the current parliament is statistically the worst behaved on record.

The general impression is one of dishonesty, sleaze and a lack of integrity. But what can be done to shift the dial?

The most common answer is ‘tighten the rules’. Indeed, this is the approach taken by the Governance Project – a Commission led by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve – which has published a report today calling for a series of reforms aimed at restoring ‘high standards of integrity in public office’. These include strengthening the regulation of ministerial behaviour, conflicts of interest, and movement between the public and private sector – as well as reforming appointments to the House of Lords and political honours.

The government rejects the idea that the system needs a fundamental overhaul, but it has recently made some changes to the rules covering officials and ministers who leave government for the private sector, and introduced greater transparency around some public appointments.

Labour, for its part, has been making noises for some time about going further, by establishing an integrity and ethics commission, which would bring together several of the existing standards bodies and give them greater power and independence.

The logic seems to be that stricter rules and more powerful regulators will translate into greater public trust. As Grieve’s Commission says, ‘public trust has reduced as individuals and systems have failed to respond effectively’ to issues of poor conduct. Having a robust system for holding politicians to high ethical standards matters – and the Commission’s proposals would no doubt do much to improve the current arrangements. But as important as institutional reforms are, they are hardly enough to address the UK’s trust deficit.

Rules themselves are not enough. The political theorist Edward Hall has argued that political integrity is about more than just adhering to codes of conduct. It also involves having substantive and deeply held political commitments. This is not to say that politicians should never compromise or negotiate – Hall is clear that if they are serious about realising their objectives, then they will have to do so. Rather, the point is that there are certain central commitments that if abandoned can lead to a perception of a lack integrity.

Hall cites the example of the Lib Dems and tuition fees. It was not compromising with the Tories per se that led many to doubt the party’s integrity. Rather, it was reneging on a pledge that was presented as a central – if not the central – component of the party’s 2010 manifesto.

What should Keir Starmer make of this? He has presented Labour as a party that can be trusted to follow the rules. But as a means of doing what? Starmer has watered down earlier pledges on green investment, childcare, and benefits, among other things. It may be that these are seen as necessary compromises in the context of a worse UK fiscal position. But eventually voters may come to think that Labour’s programme has no principled core. And at this point they may ask why they should trust a politics that appears to lack purpose.

Equally, politics needs to deliver. Cheap talk undermines trust. Many who voted for Brexit in 2016 report feeling that the promised benefits have not been secured. The Sunak government has dropped the focus on ‘levelling up’. Johnson promised to ‘fix social care’, but never followed through, while Sunak has pledged to ‘stop the boats’, which many have warned isn’t going to happen. Politics needs a purpose, but it also needs to be seen to be delivering it. Why else should people have faith in their politicians?

Both parties should be thinking about how to strengthen the ethics rules ahead of the next general election. But while this is necessary, it is not sufficient. If they want to be seen as having integrity, they will also have to set out a deliverable political programme, with some sense of deeper purpose – even when those things seem to pull in different directions.

By Alex Walker, Research and Communications Officer, UK in a Changing Europe. 

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