New polling shows that English voters lack faith in our democracy – with mistrust of democratic systems a key driver for far-right support

Less than half (45%) of the English public feels that democracy is working well in the UK, with 77% of people saying that they don’t trust MPs, new polling reports today. 

The data comes as the Government seeks to pass its Elections Bill which has been criticised for making it harder for people to participate in democracy. Fair Vote UK’s Kyle Taylor has called the bill an “assault on democracy“.

The report, published by Carnegie UK, found that a third of the public surveyed believe that a loss of trust in Government is the biggest threat to democracy – with many people expressing concern about the impact of corruption, fake news and disinformation.

The data was collected before the scandal of the Downing Street parties rocked trust in the Government, with the revelations leading to accusations that there was one rule for those in power and another for the rest of the population. 

But, even before these latest scandals, only 8% of respondents thought the Government reflected values of honesty and integrity, while 90% said the Government did not reflect, or only slightly reflected, values of openness and transparency.

Sarah Davidson, CEO of Carnegie UK, warned that “public trust in Government and in elected politicians is at a low-ebb in England right now”.

“These findings should be a wake up call to UK politicians to invest in democratic wellbeing by ramping up participatory democracy and improving transparency,” she said. “We need to focus on measures of national success in keeping with people’s priorities, rather than one-dimensional economic measures.”


‘Assault on Democracy’ 

The Elections Bill, which passed from the House of Commons to the Lords this week, plans to introduce a raft of measures including voter ID. Some have warned the requirement to show photographic ID at polling stations could harm democratic participation. 

Democracy campaigners, Labour MPs and even some Conservatives have objected to the plan.

Veteran MP David Davis said that Government promises that the bill is designed to protect democracy are “nonsense”. Writing in openDemocracy, he explained how “in proposing to introduce mandatory voter ID, the Government risks undermining one of the most fundamental rights we have here in the UK – to vote freely without restriction”.

There were only 88 allegations of in-person voter fraud between 2015 and 2019, in which period 153 million votes were cast.

The proposal would disproportionately impact black and ethnic minority people and marginalised communities. White people are most likely to hold one form of photo ID – for example 76% hold a full driving licence, compared to 38% of Asian people and 48% of black people. The Government has said a range of ID options will be accepted. 

The Government also voted against a ban on overseas voters being allowed to donate to political parties and to lower the voting age to 16. 

When put next to Carnegie UK’s data on democratic participation, the potential barriers allowed in the new bill become increasingly concerning. Nearly three-quarters, 71%, of survey respondents believed that citizens should have more power to hold Governments to account, while the majority said that they did not know or had not heard of various mechanisms for participatory democracy including consultations, focus groups and citizens assemblies. 


The Rise of the Far-Right

A lack of faith in democracy is often linked to rising far-right feeling in a country, as dissatisfaction with liberal democracy becomes a breeding ground for extremist ideologies and a desire for authoritarian leadership.

Democratic participation and trust in Government has acted as a bulwark against far-right extremism. But, the more voters tune out of participating in mainstream democracy, its inherent barriers against extremism are dismantled, with the fringes able to push their agenda into the centre of power.

Anger at political ‘elites’ and the belief the system isn’t working ‘for us’ is easily exploited by those who wish to implement an authoritarian, non-democratic system of governance with a ‘strongman’ leader.

These leaders present the current system as corrupt and failing, and win support with a promise they will “drain the swamp” – often in spite of being corrupt themselves. Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, Donald Trump in the US and Viktor Orban in Hungary have all used this tactic to win power, before being accused of corruption. All three capitalised on a lack of trust in democracy and a rise in far-right feeling. 

As part of its assault on democratic norms, the far-right uses disinformation and fake news in order to, as Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon called it, “flood the zone with s**t”.

From QAnon conspiracy theories to lies about migrant people ‘replacing’ white British citizens, disinformation and fake news is designed to destroy any notion of objective reality and truth and undermine trust in democracy. Little wonder, then, that respondents to Carnegie UK’s survey identified fake news and disinformation as fuelling mistrust in democracy. It is supposed to. 

Disinformation creates chaos and undermines trust. The far-right blames the chaos on democratic systems. And the strongman leader swoops in with a promise to end the chaos and take control. 

Carnegie UK’s report, says Will Moy from Full Fact UK, “is an important reminder about the corrosive impact of dishonesty in public life”.

“Falling trust and bad information can’t go unchecked,” he said. “Today’s report should be a wake-up call for MPs and elected representatives across the UK, especially those who too often take our trust for granted. When people can’t trust those in power, they disengage.”

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