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Expenses, trust and electoral reform

10/02/2010

Trust in the UK Parliament
has halved in recent years.
Image by Tony Moorey

The Expenses scandal has damaged support for politics in the UK. We’ll see the full extent of any disengagement when we can track it long term – especially voter turnout, but all parties have already put forward responses. Although the inquiry and reform processes have themselves been less than straightforward, Parliament is making moves to repair the system – including increases in transparency, a more powerful independent body in charge of expenses claims, and changes to entitlements. The Tories repeatedly call for a general election, so do the Lib Dems who also want a proportional electoral system to ensure MPs can be more easily held to account. Labour won a vote on holding a referendum asking citizens whether we want to adopt the non-proportional AV electoral system, although it is not clear that this bill could be passed before an election.

It seems to me that in order to provide the best long term solution, we need to understand what specific effects on our attitudes the Expenses scandal has had. If we blame all politicians, a general election should go some way to remove those who have become unpopular. The same goes if the British people tend to see this scandal as part of the narrative of a failed government, a conflation, but a plausible one. If confidence in the whole of parliament, or even the whole political system, is permanently damaged, then changes like the recent proposals for electoral reform might be necessary.

Political trust

Political trust does tend to be rather a generalised phenomenon – if people start to lose trust in the government, they are pretty likely to say they also distrust the parliament, and vice versa. At the moment, Labour’s unpopularity means that trust in the Government is down, and this may have had some effect on trust in all politicians. Nonetheless, the figures for the UK Parliament are very bad indeed, and they are lower than levels of trust in Government for the first time I’ve seen. I don’t always trust survey responses but they can obviously be a way of getting a crude feel for opinion, and are good for comparison. Bearing in mind that these questions were asked in the middle of the expenses scandal, but according to the surveys undertaken by the EU, trust in politicians as a profession was down to 13%, the lowest ever recorded. At 17%, the level of trust in our Parliament had halved since 2007. It was also down 27% from the mid 1990s. This is therefore a general trend as well as a result of last year’s events (from which it can be assumed that trust in Parliament will recover somewhat). Many will blame the media for the effects of this, and indeed it has been shown that it is the reporting of corruption which affects attitudes rather than the act itself. But there is no denying that when seen through the filter of the spin given to stories, confidence in both the way our Parliament works and politicians is damaged.

Changes to the political system are therefore necessary

Although it might be that altering the system of expenses is enough, it seems unlikely these changes will really change general perceptions of how politics is run. It doesn’t necessarily follow that electoral reform would be an adequate a solution to corruption – an aspect of behaviour and values – but it will increase accountability by reducing safe seats. It is also a major change, which allows Labour to give the appearance of responding in a big way, and has also been fairly popular for a while. Any increase in support for the party proposing these radical reforms will, of course, occur even if the reforms don’t get through. The same cannot be said for confidence in politics in general if the system stays as it is. We won’t know for sure whether electoral reform will help without knowing how it would play out in voter turnout. Indeed political trust could be restored by itself once the memory of the scandal fades. But for now it does seem that people have lost a good deal of confidence in Westminster, and that reforms such as changing the electoral system may be an effective fix.

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