Speaking at a Half-Day conference organised jointly by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Public Administration Select Committee, Sir George set out his views on a recent survey on Public Attitudes to Standards of Conduct in Public Life.
I welcome the survey and the report that is based on it. Sir Alistair Graham’s Committee has put a thermometer under the tongue of the body politic and taken our temperature. We are found to be healthier than other countries, but in far from peak condition
To pursue the medical analogy, the nature of the virus is changing – from sleaze to spin - and, as we construct a defence and develop antibodies for the last epidemic, so the next one is different. I return to this in a moment.
This is the first survey of its type, and it complements valuable work done by other bodies - the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society - on public perceptions of the body politic. Done regularly, it will enable us to carry out benchmarking. Without robust objective evidence such as that in this survey, much of the debate about conduct in public life would take place in a vacuum. So I am pleased it will be repeated, with appropriate recognition of the fact that the expectations that we are judged against may themselves be raised or amended over time.
I want to make three main points. First, this survey reinforces the conclusions of a survey published by the Electoral Commission in September 2003 that there is a widespread misunderstanding amongst the public of the role of the Party in our affairs. This survey shows that people reject party loyalty as a legitimate influence in our behaviour; and that independence of opinion is applauded at the expense of adherence to the Party line.
The public at large clearly understand about Manifestos – but not about Parties. But manifestos are meaningless without parties. This is a paradox we must address if we are to improve, as we must, the understanding of the vital part that the political parties play in our democratic process, and correct the contradictions in current public attitudes towards them.
We need to explain the positive role of political parties, which come out as the bad guys in the survey. The truth is that they give the electorate a clear and meaningful choice at election time, and ensure that the party that is elected has the authority to govern thereafter. They channel the political debate in this country from hundreds of insignificant little streams into broad rivers.
Of course, all MP’s recognise that they owe their party their judgement as well as their loyalty; but if there was such independence that a governing party could not deliver its contract with the electorate, there would, I believe be an even greater disaffection with our profession.
The second point that struck me is the premium scored by the local MP – whoever he or she is – as against MP’s collectively. Table 2 shows that our trustworthiness drops by 20% when we graduate from being the local MP to an MP “in general”. The Electoral Commission/Hansard Society audit of political engagement shows a similar headline figure – 41% overall were satisfied with the performance of their own Member, but only 32% with Members collectively, and in the latter case the percentage actively dissatisfied almost trebles.
Whichever constituency I visit and however diligent the local MP, a common remark is “MP’s are a pretty dodgy bunch, but we’re frightfully lucky here.” People assume that their MP is the exception; but, actually, he or she is almost certainly not exceptional.
He or she is basically an honest, hardworking soul trying to do his best for the constituency, coping with an overloaded diary, a hostile media, the eccentricities of the PDVN and an increasingly exasperated family.
Their MP is almost certainly not like the few MP’s who have been caught in the headlights of the Commissioner or the criminal justice system, or whose personal conduct has, for whatever reason, attracted adverse media attention; but those few risk becoming the model.
What is even more perverse is that people appear to base their perception of MP’s on what journalists—who, by and large, they don’t trust—have to say, rather than their own judgement. The survey shows the powerful role of the media, with 63% saying that their views on the issues covered by the survey were influenced by newspapers and magazines.
One wishes the British public had more confidence in its own direct experience when passing judgement.
My third point is the one I mentioned at the beginning. Today’s virus is a different one. There is a shift of emphasis from sleaze to spin as the key public concern. As the Commissioner and my Committee tackle sleaze, but don’t have responsibility for spin, I suppose we might take some modest comfort from that.
People don’t believe we take bribes or that we vote on the basis of self-interest. Only 11% rate standards in public life as low or very low.
But the problem has moved on; and it is now spin. But who determines the currency?
Not the media and not the public. In this case, we the politicians have. The Labour Party majored on sleaze when we were in Government; and that became the currency. We have majored on Spin with this Government and that is now the currency. People don’t believe us when we say something positive about ourselves; but they do believe us when we say something negative about our opponents. I am not saying that either party was wrong to develop the argument; I am saying that that type of attack has implications for the way we are all perceived by our voters.
Which brings me on to some final smaller points. The survey also sheds light on another matter that concerns us all – declining voter turnout.
56% of respondents felt it was extremely important that we should be in touch with what the general public thinks is important. But the Survey that we don’t score very well, and Ministers do even worse. 77% of respondents agreed that “generally speaking, those we elect as MP’s lose touch with people pretty quickly.” We don’t tell the truth, explain what we do or own up to making mistakes, it finds.
I recall some work, done I think by the Hansard Society, on why more people voted in Big Brother than in the last general election.
The answer was quite interesting. People could relate to the folk in the House. (The Channel 4 House – not ours).They were manifestly and visibly human; they discussed the things that normal people talk about in ordinary – sometimes colourful language ; they made mistakes and apologised. People could identify and empathise with them.
In fact they did all the things we don’t do, and they weren’t working in a building straight out of Harry Potter.
So if we want to convince people we occupy the same world as they do, we need to make some more changes. That will help address that part of the survey and hopefully drive up turnout
It is a cultural change we need, informed by a broader understanding of what the public want.