Matt Warman is MP for Boston and Skegness.
There is a crisis of confidence in British democracy – fewer than one in ten people believe that any layer of government will act in their best interests, and 40 per cent of people had no trust in parish councils, local authorities, and the Commons. As politicians deliver Brexit, it’s more important than ever that British citizens have faith that most MPs go into that uniquely challenging endeavour with the best of democratic intentions – and yet for the vast majority there is not just a lack of confidence, but an active view that the opposite is quite likely.
This is just some of the polling from my new report for the Centre for Policy Studies, Who Governs Britain? Knowing the scale of the problem is a vital part of understanding the size of the challenge, and the urgency of the need to address it is all too apparent. Almost three in ten people don’t even know MPs make laws that affect them, and across our sample of some 2,000 people surveyed, zero per cent knew accurately which particularly configuration of local and national government was relevant to their postcode. Both education and confidence building are way overdue.
As ever, it’s far easier to identify the problem than the solution, and in Who Governs Britain? there are suggestions both for what could be done to tackle the sense that politicians all too often lie to people, or withhold truths, as well as about how we might structure government itself differently so that it feels profoundly more accountable.
That means proposals that range from online campaigning to planning, but throughout the aim is to reconnect the public with the decisions taken by politicians that affect their lives.
At its heart, however, is a hope that more contact with politicians is what will restore people’s faith in them. While there are of course corruption scandals in Britain, the truth is they are vanishingly rare – we live in one of the most honourable democracies in the world, at both local and national level. So those men and women making decisions that all too often people do not like are at least making them with the best of intentions. Anybody who has ever had the privilege of being a local councillor or any other elected official will know that, even when opposing politicians make decisions one might oneself disagree with, they are mostly made in good faith. Housebuilding or NHS changes, for instance, can often be ferociously controversial, but these are ultimately fine judgment calls about immensely difficult issues.
One recommendation in the report, therefore, is that the public should have a right to an explanation of why a decision has been made, seeking in many ways to deliver on the partially failed promise of the Freedom of Information Act – government should have to say by whom and for why a decision was made, in particular in a bid to make outsourced areas of the state feel more accountable. The more people see about the workings of government, the more I’m confident that there should be greater understanding of it and empathy with those making such choices. It’s easy to call that touchingly naïve and point to decades of scandal, but the reality is that the vast majority of government is done with the best of intentions.
Equally, however, we should look to tackle widespread ignorance about government itself and cynicism about politics. Seductive internet conspiracy theories may all too often sound plausible, and so addressing that lack of critical thinking, with a particular focus on web culture, would do no harm at all. Building such skills into the exam system would also make it obvious how useful they are in the world of work.
Elsewhere, though, there are areas where decisions are made by people who the public don’t feel have to live with the consequences – that’s an accusation lazily levelled at many who campaigned to leave the EU, but it is also one most keenly felt when it comes to local planning decisions. It’s why in Taunton Deane and in Lincolnshire, councils are beginning to experiment with devolving decisions down to parish and town level. The first attempt will see only minor decisions made ultra-locally, but my hope is that such a move works well enough to continue in the same vein. Local communities should also have more control over how developments look, and there should be a clearer system to link growth in NHS services, for instance, to housing growth. Communities are far less resistant to development if they know that, say, taking several hundred houses will lead to major investment in their areas schools or broadband or NHS. It’s a link that has been far too opaque for far too long.
Taken individually, none of these measures, and the many others in the report, will make a huge difference – but collectively they seek to address a crisis of trust in politics that otherwise risks exacerbating the trend for extreme parties, and thereby fulfilling the initial prejudice that politicians really don’t have everybody’s best interests at heart.