The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement published today makes for a depressing read for those of us involved in promoting high standards in public life. The Committee’s six questions – which are an attempt to continue to track trends from our previous biennial surveys - show that the downward trajectory of public perceptions of standards continues.
Some commentators may say ‘twas ever thus’ and I agree that a degree of public scepticism is a healthy thing in a functioning democracy. But if, like me, you had expected a slight uplift in levels from the darkest days of the expenses scandal you will be sorely disappointed. Fewer people said that overall standards of conduct of people in public life were high and more people said that standards were low than recorded in any of the 2004-2012 biennial surveys. It is clear that public office holders have not been able to repair or restore public confidence in their behaviour.
However, what is going on here may not solely be about standards. Our research advisory board tell me that the research clearly indicates a close link between perceptions of standards of conduct by public office holders and broader attitudes about the way the current political system works in the UK - people who are dissatisfied with the way the political system works or the level of influence they have on the political process are more likely to have negative perceptions of current standards of conduct in public life.
So, saying that the standards of conduct of public office holders are low may be at least in part an expression of a general dissatisfaction with politics, rather than any actual decline in the standards of conduct of those in public life, but for those who do see the standards of conduct of public office holders as poor, this may also decrease overall confidence in Britain’s system of government.
Evidence from the UK and Europe suggests British citizens’ assessments of standards in public life are not unusual and they are rarely the most cynical. Indeed British citizens’ experiences of corruption are consistently lower than those in most other European countries.
What is lacking from our questions is a deeper understanding of the critical factors at play in people’s perceptions. We know that the public can hold conflicting views on standards issues. For instance, the public say that they do not want MPs to have outside interests but we also know that the public would like to see MPs from all walks of life. On party funding, the public are highly suspicious of parties being funded by big donors - whether individuals or trades unions. But on the other hand, even a small level of state funding is unpopular.
So, depressing as they are, today’s figures must be seen in context. Actual standards may not be getting worse, but there is a huge job to do to reinvigorate and restore confidence in our political system and the Committee is keen to play its part in that. There are no quick solutions to these intractable issues – for the public to have confidence they will need demonstrable evidence that those in positions of leadership – both political and managerial - have listened, learned and improved. Restoring public confidence in standards in public life will not be as simple as addressing standards in isolation but taking our eye off the ball on standards at this point is simply not an option.
Lord Paul Bew is the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The Committee's thanks go to Chris Prosser from the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford for his hard work on this analysis.