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Do the public really want to change ‘the system’?

About the author
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit

A poll commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and reported in today’s Guardian and by Stuart Weir indicates that 75 per cent of those questioned believe either that the UK’s system of government could be ‘improved a great deal’ or that it could be improved ‘quite a lot’. A mere 3 per cent suggest that the system works well and could not be improved at all. The poll also suggests a clear majority – over 60 per cent - would be in favour of a more proportional electoral system.

The question asking survey respondents to assess the current system for governing Britain has been asked in an identical form in 15 surveys since 1973 and on a regular basis since 1991.  The ‘net’ score of -50 per cent in 2009 for faith in the system (calculated as the percentage largely in favour of leaving the system alone minus the percentage suggesting significant reforms are required) is the second lowest ever recorded (narrowly beaten only by the score of -53 per cent in 1995). The 42 per cent proportion responding that the system needs a great deal of improvement is the highest ever.

The results for 2009 are hardly surprising, other than for the fact that there are 3 per cent who somehow continue to believe that the system ‘works extremely well and could not be improved’. Likewise, nobody doubts that support for major constitutional and electoral reforms has received an enormous boost from the revelations surrounding MPs expenses. But everyone knows that these are exceptional times politically. To what extent do poll results like this reflect a deep-seated desire for system reforms?

Just as importantly, when people are polled on issues such as this, do they distinguish between the system of government and the party of government? These are clearly not the same thing. For instance, the way in which constitutional provisions do, or do not, define the role of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, or the relationship of the Cabinet to the House of Commons, are entirely different concerns to how well the Prime Minister, Cabinet or Commons are performing. But do voters see things this way? Do they evaluate the system more positively when they are more satisfied with the job the government and the Prime Minister are doing? Are they more likely to advocate changes to the system of government when the economic climate is gloomy? 

There is a way of seeking to answer these questions. Since 1979, MORI (now Ipsos MORI) has carried out monthly opinion polls asking people identical questions about their degree of satisfaction with how both the government is running the country and how the Prime Minister is doing her/his job. The same polls have also asked questions about the extent to which those surveyed are optimistic or pessimistic about future economic conditions.  These polls are frequently used to derive rating for both net satisfaction with the government and Prime Minister (the percentage of satisfied respondents minus the percentage of dissatisfied respondents) and for net economic optimism (the percentage of respondents who believe economic condition will improve minus those who think things will get worse).

Figure 1 plots the figures for net ‘faith in the system’ of government reported in surveys since 1991 alongside the net ‘scores’ for satisfaction with how the government and the Prime Minister are doing their jobs, as well as the net level of economic optimism. There are many apparent quirks in these data sets. In the years for which data are plotted here, people were on balance always pessimistic about the economy, despite continuous economic growth during most of this period. Uniquely among the last four Prime Ministers, Tony Blair did not register a single negative score for net satisfaction during his entire period in office.  But what we are looking for here are indicators of how these different facets of public opinion relate to each other. There are three obvious patterns which emerge.

First, while the public’s assessment of the system of government is generally far more negative than the public’s view of how well the government is doing its job, these two lines on the graph mirror each other almost perfectly - this can be seen more clearly in figure 2, in which the other two indicators of the public mood are removed. This would suggest that when there is a popular perception that the party of government is under-performing, more people are likely to suggest that the system of government needs to change. Yet, even if the system is unpopular and remains unchanged, the return of a new party of government seems to cause levels of satisfaction with the system to rise. This is likely to be part of the explanation for why parties promise reforms of the system in opposition, but generally fail to deliver such reforms once in government – in essence, a shift in the public mood allows them to get away with it.   

Second, while the public’s assessment during the Major years clearly distinguished between the role of the Prime Minister and the role of government, the tendency under Blair and Brown has been for the government and the Prime Minister to become virtually synonymous in the eyes of the electorate. This is perhaps yet another indicator of the extent to which the office of Prime Minister has dominated the executive and legislative branches of government since Labour were returned to office under Blair in 1997. Furthermore, while it is clear that the period since 2006 has witnessed a dramatic fall in satisfaction with Brown as a Prime Minister, particularly when compared to Blair, this has occurred alongside an equally sharp fall in satisfaction with the government and an equally obvious loss of faith in the system of government. While this reflects the more general tendency highlighted above, it also raises the question of what the causal factors may be. It is certainly possible that, post-Blair, dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister is a strong factor influencing popular criticism of the system of government.

Third, sharp downturns in economic optimism do seem to be associated with sharp downturns in the public’s assessment of ‘the system’, although it is likely that a line plotting the economic cycle, as measured by house prices or stock market values, would yield an even closer fit. It is notable that an upturn in economic optimism before the 1997 General Election appeared to result in higher satisfaction ratings for John Major and his government, but was clearly not enough to prevent the Conservatives sustaining heavy losses at the polls. For Gordon Brown and Labour to recover from here would be a political miracle. But the chances of the UK’s system of government surviving intact are considerably higher.

Trends in attitudes to the part of government, PM, economy, and 'system' 

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