UK voters want politicians to face stronger checks and balances

Houses of Parliament with a streetlight in the foreground
Houses of Parliament with a streetlight in the foreground

Trust in politicians is at a low ebb and the health of the UK democracy matters as much to voters as issues such as crime and immigration, according to a new report by the UCL Constitution Unit.

Published today, the report found that most voters believe stronger mechanisms are needed to ensure politicians follow the rules, with four out of five saying the current system needs reform so that politicians who do not act with integrity can be punished.

The research team found overwhelming support for stronger independent regulators, with a majority wanting an independent regulator to be able to launch its own investigations into alleged ministerial wrongdoing.

The wide-ranging report looked at survey responses from more than 4,000 people who were representative of the UK voting age population, conducted in August and September last year during the final stages of the Conservative leadership contest.

The researchers found that trust in politicians was lower than it had been a year earlier, with about half (52%) believing that politicians had lower ethical standards than ordinary citizens. Only 5% thought politicians had higher ethical standards.

The issues that respondents felt were most important in politics - assessed by asking which of two issues was more important to them - were the cost of living and the NHS, but the health of democracy in the UK was found to be on a par with issues such as the war in Ukraine, housing, crime and immigration.

The report, part of the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project examining public attitudes to democracy, sets out findings from the second of two surveys, with all respondents having already taken part in an earlier survey in July 2021, allowing the research team to track how views have changed over time.

Other key findings were:

There was strong support for judges adjudicating disputes in government and protecting human rights. Forty-one per cent agreed judges had an important role in ensuring politicians followed the rules (up from 32% in 2021), compared to 27% agreeing that elected officials should be responsible themselves.

Views on House of Lords reform were mixed. Overwhelming majorities were in favour of two reforms: a cap on the size of the Lords to no bigger than the Commons (65% in favour vs 3% preferring no size limit) and an independent body to appoint new peers (58% in favour vs 6% preferring the Prime Minister to appoint new peers). But there was no consensus for creating an elected second chamber.

Most people wanted a stronger parliament and thought ministers should not be able to change the law without full parliamentary scrutiny.

Views on referendums were mixed. Most respondents (51%) supported citizens’ assemblies (while only 17% opposed them), but knowing a proposal came from such an assembly barely increased support for it.

Professor Alan Renwick (UCL Constitution Unit), who led the research, said: "These findings show that voters in the UK care about our democracy. Above all, they want politicians who act with integrity and honesty. This pattern is no flash in the pan: people have long been crying out for a change of course. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have both promised such a reset. Voters will watch their delivery closely."

Professor Meg Russell (Director of UCL Constitution Unit) said: "Concerns have often been expressed in recent years about the unchecked power of the government in Whitehall, and our findings seem to show that voters agree. They want greater checks on government, including through parliament, independent regulators and the courts. To restore public faith, political leaders should think carefully about where rebalancing is needed."

The report, entitled "Public Preferences for Integrity and Accountability in Politics", is part of a wider research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its Governance after Brexit research programme. In addition to the two surveys in 2021 and 2022, the project also included the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK, which ran between September and December 2021.