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Will the Government's constitutional reforms restore trust in politics?

Posted on 20 April 2012 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow .
Tags: society

There in one room in Portcullis House, Parliament’s ‘extension’ on the Embankment, were Ben Seyd and myself unveiling the initial British Social Attitudes 29th Report findings on the popularity of the coalition’s reform programme and its apparent potential for reversing some of the erosion of the public’s trust in politics and politicians.

And there at the very same moment in the room next door was Nick Clegg, the man in charge of that programme, being grilled by MPs about his reforms, including not least one of the government’s key proposals for restoring trust – allowing voters to demand their local MP face a by-election if they have been adjudged to be ‘guilty’ of serious wrongdoing.

Graham Allen, chair of the committee grilling Mr Clegg reportedly said the proposal was deeply unpopular amongst MPs.

Well it sure is popular with the public. For, just as Mr Allen was speaking, in our session we were reporting that new data, from the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey shows that no less than 88 per cent feel that voters should be able to compel an MP who has ‘broken the rules’ to fight a by-election.

Moreover, the idea is especially popular amongst those with least faith in politics and politicians. Indeed none of the myriad of reforms being promulgated by the current government seems better placed to help reduce public scepticism about how they are being governed.

However, the big concern in some MPs’ minds is where it will all end. What about the MP who is perfectly honest and well-behaved but, let us say, is seemingly no longer putting their back into the job? Will voters not start to demand the chance to vote them out too?

Mr Clegg did his best to reassure MPs there was no chance of this happening under his proposals. Voters would not get the chance to demand a by-election unless fellow MPs had decided their local representative was guilty of ‘serious wrongdoing’.

However, there are many voters - no less than 58% of the British public - who think they should have the chance to sack an MP who they think is not doing a good job. Indeed, the proportion rises to as much as 71% amongst the one-fifth or so who currently have least faith in politics and political institutions.

Any serious attempt at restoring trust and confidence in our political institutions may well require MPs to accept a much tougher regime than either Mr Allen or Mr Clegg would like.
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