A new report reveals that more people in the UK place their trust in the courts than they do in the Prime Minister. Only 7% of participants described themselves as ‘very satisfied’ with UK democracy. The political class needs to wake up and take note if it is to truly understand and engage with voters, especially those aged under 40.  

By Joanna George 

Research Associate, University of Cambridge 

A new report published this week by the UCL Constitution Unit on ‘What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?’ reveals that UK voters value the characteristics of honesty, integrity and rule-abiding above all else in politicians. The report considers the responses of 6,500 people from the voting age population taken in July 2021. Yet its publication couldn’t be timelier given the current political crisis engulfing the UK Government and Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has recently been accused of lying and law-breaking during the COVID-19 lockdowns.  

Notably, the report suggests that there is a critical gap in understanding between what the Government believes to appeal most to voters and what voters actually prioritise, with respondents valuing honesty (71%) over policy delivery (16%) from a future Prime Minister. This indicates that the Government’s priorities of getting Brexit ‘done’ and fulfilling ‘delivery’ of the UK-wide COVID-19 vaccine rollout fails to align with the core values of voters across the UK who are seeking more relatable qualities from politicians, such as being in touch with ordinary people and keeping their promises. 

Of the four central parts of the democratic system, respondents trust the courts the most (43%) and the Prime Minister the least (24%). Parliament came second to last with trust at 24% followed by the civil service at 29%. On being asked whether courts should be able to decide whether people’s legal rights have been violated, respondents strongly supported the role of the courts in comparison to Parliament’s involvement in the process. As the Government consults on the Human Rights Act 1998 and proposes to ‘restore Parliament’s role as the ultimate decision-maker on laws impacting the UK population’ because of its concern that there is an imbalance of power between the courts and Parliament, the report’s findings suggest that voters want a strong role for the judiciary, not a weakened one.   

The judiciary also ranked highly in a list of twelve political actors who would act in the best interests of people in the UK, coming second to the Government’s scientific advisers. Intriguingly, non-politicians – especially experts of various kinds, but also ‘voters in general’ – were trusted above politicians; this may explain why credible outside actors who campaign on political issues gain more traction and trust with voters than elected politicians.  

The role of the public as influencers of UK democracy was also considered. Over 75% of respondents across all demographic groups and past voting patterns agreed that people like them had too little influence, including 34% who thought that they had ‘far too little’. Being responsive to citizens’ concerns was considered significant, with people wanting MPs to resolve their constituents’ needs as opposed to people themselves proactively taking a role. However, when asked about how issues should be decided, most people agreed that referendums should be used for types of issues that have previously been decided this way. This includes divisive issues such as whether or not to rejoin the EU (71%) and what voting system should be used to elect MPs (61%).    

Citizens’ assemblies, a deliberative method of enabling and engaging public participation in policymaking, were analysed with positive findings for the role and function of Parliament in contrast to other areas of the report. Support was highest for an assembly whose recommendations would go to Parliament for decision, highlighting that respondents did not want to side-step politicians from the decision-making process.  

The concept of democracy varied across respondents, but on the whole, most people (54%) said that they were satisfied with how democracy works in the UK. Yet only 7% described themselves as ‘very satisfied’ with UK democracy. From a generational perspective, satisfaction was higher among those aged over 60 (63%) in comparison to those aged under 40 (45%). This supports other research which shows that on a global level, youth satisfaction with democracy is declining. How this generational democratic divide will play out over the long-term is uncertain, but it indicates that politicians should take intragenerational concerns seriously if democracy is to remain a cherished ideal in the UK.  

The Government and other political actors would be wise to carefully reflect and learn from the report’s findings if it is truly invested in and respectful of UK democracy. Those involved in the democratic process – particularly politicians – should also be asking: how can we improve on the basic and vital qualities that people seek from us? What is limiting us from upholding these values? It is clear from the report that a system of checks and balances on the Government is highly valued, and the functioning of democracy in the UK would be best served by those who respect this vital function.