Liberal democracy in the UK, and across the western world, is under strain. After the most recent sleaze scandal to have hit Westminster, our polling shows that almost two in three people see politicians as “out for themselves”. In 1944, when this question was first put to the public, only one in three shared this view.
The leap of faith that voters make when they entrust a small group of people to govern on their behalf is extraordinarily powerful. It allows societies to make collective decisions democratically and efficiently – without the need to involve everyone, all the time.
Yet it is also very fragile. Trust in politics is easily lost and hard to regain.
But regain it we must. The decline of trust in politics in the UK and in other liberal democracies over recent decades is damaging society. It is both cause and consequence of the rise in support for populist parties, rhetoric and causes, as well as growing polarisation, seen most clearly in the UK on Brexit.
Populist politicians have been far more successful at tapping into voters’ discontent with democratic politics in order to win power. From Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán, the populist right has proved its ability to channel people’s anger into illiberal policy agendas. Boris Johnson’s government has not gone as far as this group – but it is clearly drawing from the same playbook.
The problem is that the solutions put forward by populist leaders – retreating into nativism, concentrating power centrally and combining big rhetoric on economic and social change with limited action – fundamentally fail to grapple with the underlying causes of our democratic malaise and further deepen democratic decline.
Only a truly progressive reform agenda that seeks to increase both prosperity and justice simultaneously, and to renew representative democracy for the challenges of the future, can really allow people, in the words of the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, to “take back control”.
Carys Roberts is executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)