Gripping, isn’t it? Our once-entitled politicians have reverted to vulnerable candidates for six weeks. Trust in politics is low, yet candidates are campaigning to win the public’s confidence – and with it, their votes. Could democratic reform in the UK be the answer?
December’s general election comes at a time when faith in our democratic institutions is so shattered they are even derided by the politicians. For example, in the past month alone, the government has accused parliament of preventing it from delivering the will of the people. Furthermore, the Opposition has accused the government of presiding over a rigged system serving vested interests.
It is little wonder that public trust in politics remains so low. The corrosive influence of big money continues to undermine the integrity of our political system. Gaps in the law provide an opening for money of unknown provenance to enter our elections. And loopholes in regulations and weak enforcement allow for interference by foreign governments in our democracy.
The situation is grave, and UK politicians themselves are calling for electoral law reform, albeit piecemeal. In July, the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Damian Collins, called for emergency legislation to protect against online electoral interference. In August, Labour proposed a crackdown on big money in politics to prevent the corrupting of democracy.
The government has plans to consult on electoral integrity reforms, which may look at transparency of digital advertising, loopholes on foreign spending in elections, preventing shell companies from sidestepping current rules on political finance, and action to tackle foreign lobbying.
Comprehensive democratic reform in the UK is needed
However, although these steps are welcome, none constitute a commitment to comprehensive reform. There is a fairly transparent pattern to Westminster’s interest in political integrity: each party supports reforms from which they stand to gain – or at the very least those from which they don’t stand to lose. The road to our current predicament is littered with cross-party talks on political finance reform that ultimately failed.
Reformers are impaled on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, piecemeal reform risks incentivising the use of new loopholes and triggering seesaw policymaking in which successive governments reform the political finance landscape to their advantage. On the other hand, wholesale democratic reform in the UK requires cross-party political will and compromise – neither of which is in abundance in 2019.
And yet, avoiding the issue has proven to be a losing game. Our electoral system is open to cheating, corruption and interference, those in public office aren’t trusted to act in the public interest, and anti-establishment anger and threats of violence are growing.
To remain relevant in rapidly changing and uncertain times, UK politicians seriously need to win back public trust in politics – and fast.
Trust in politics is about process, not just outcome
You will hear public trust framed as being about outcomes. For instance, some suggest that Brexit must be delivered or the public’s trust will be irretrievably lost. Meanwhile others hold the view that the outcome of a referendum won by breaking the rules shouldn’t be delivered – again, citing reasons of preserving public trust.
Trust, however, is as much about the process as the outcome. This is why Transparency International along with eleven other leading anti-corruption organisations has been calling for all parties to back reforms to tackle big money, dark money and foreign interference in our elections.
Undoubtedly behavior, or good ‘conduct’, also matters: more obvious adherence to the Nolan principles of public life, for example, would mean fewer examples of behavior which a reasonable member of the public might call corrupt. Whatever your preferred political outcome, its legitimacy in the eyes of the public – and ultimately its durability – is dependent upon the winners playing fair.
So while democratic reform in the UK is unlikely to be the decider of this latest general election, the first question politicians should ask themselves is not what do I stand to gain, but where am I willing to give ground. This requires courage and a strong sense of public duty that outweighs their desire to win at all costs.
That may feel like a big ask of politicians in 2019, but we award them the responsibility to serve in the public interest on the basis that they actually will.