As Parliament begins its summer recess, MPs head to their constituencies to think beyond the day-to-day Westminster programme.
There’s plenty to ponder, at every level of politics, but running through it all is a single thread that should concern anyone interested in the future of the UK. In short, the public simply does not trust those elected to decide all our futures.
That’s not just my own general sense: it was the perturbing conclusion in the polling conducted for my recent Centre for Policy Studies report, ‘Who Governs Britain?’. We must tackle the gulf between politicians’ day-to-day actual actions and the sense that once somebody is elected they cease to act in the public interest.
This is despite the fact that Britain is a country blessed with what are among the lowest rates of corruption in the world. A maximum of only 9% of Britons feel they would be dealt with fairly when dealing with government – this is truly a crisis of confidence in our democracy.
Some of this comes down to the sense that – according to the news on Facebook at least – things have never been so bad, whichever side you’re on. But we also need to go beyond questioning bad reporting to tackle the perception that decisions aren’t taken in the public interest. And we do also need to tackle where those decisions are actually taken.
So first, ‘Who Governs Britain?’ proposes that adverts on Facebook make it clear who and why political parties might be targeting individuals, and to make a combined list of commercial interests available to the public. Our democracy would be healthier if we knew the motives of parties and the potential vested interests that elected government officials have. This is not because there is any evidence that there are serious incidents of unrevealed malpractice – precisely the opposite. Public distrust of elected government, however misplaced, should be examined rather than brushed under the carpet.
On the more substantial themes, however, it’s clear that on issues that matter to local communities such as planning in particular there is a sense that decisions are taken by those who are lucky enough not to be affected profoundly by them. Moves in Lincolnshire and Devon, among others, to devolve planning powers down, initially for minor cases, show a faith in local people that should be developed further. And to go beyond that, it should be clear that if a community is home to hundreds of new houses and extensive new development, that brings with it a predictable and definite benefit to local health services, or broadband or education or the whole host of important public services.
The aim behind all of this is to try to provide a greater sense of accountability, and that’s why there is a further proposal that’s been characterised as a ‘Right to an explanation’. How much did something cost, who decided it was right and why? In an age of increasing outsourcing to the private sector, the citizen deserves no less.
Individually, each of these measures is relatively minor – but taken together they could seek to close the gap of trust between citizen and state. That’s never been needed more.