The Constitution Unit


People want politicians to act with integrity, says citizens’ assembly

17 January 2022

The Constitution Unit publishes partial results from the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK, which concluded in December 2021.

Citizens' Assembly on Democracy in the UK logo

The Citizens' Assembly on Democracy in the UK met to examine the question, How should democracy in the UK work? The central message of the Assembly's conclusions is that people feel frustrated, dissatisfied and concerned about how democracy is working in the UK today. The Assembly calls for greater honesty, integrity and inclusivity from politicians.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK comprised 67 members, carefully selected to reflect the UK voting-age population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, disability status, region, and political attitudes. It was conducted by the UCL Constitution Unit, working with Involve, the leading public participation charity.

Assembly members concluded six weekends of intensive discussions by drafting statements summing up their feelings about democracy in the UK today. The words they most often chose were ‘dissatisfied’ and ‘frustrated’, followed by ‘concerned’, then ‘hopeful’ and ‘disappointed’.

The strongest theme was dissatisfaction and concern over a perceived lack of integrity among elected representatives. Statements included:

  • We feel dissatisfied with how democracy is working in the UK today because there is a lack of honesty and integrity in politics, combined with a lack of clear and unbiased information from both the Government and the media.
  • We feel concerned about how democracy is working in the UK today because, while most MPs are honest and trying their best, they are overshadowed by the sleaze, scandal and incompetence of a few politicians which give government and parliament a bad name. This breeds unfairness and allows systems of regulation to be overridden.
  • We feel let-down by how democracy is working in the UK today because our politicians often show a lack of honesty, openness and integrity. We expect more from them because of their position of power and authority, but currently it feels like "do as I say, rather than do as I do”.

Assembly members also felt cut off from the system. They said:

  • We feel frustrated about how democracy is working in the UK today because there is a disconnect between people and the system. We do not feel listened to and there is no clear way to have influence. We need to feel that change can happen and that different voices are taken into account. 
  • We feel disappointed with how democracy is working in the UK today because there are not enough ‘ordinary people’ in parliament and government.

Overall, they were worried about the direction of travel that democracy in the UK is taking:

  • We feel concerned about how democracy is working in the UK today because we feel it is spiralling downwards and getting worse. It doesn't feel like there is much hope in sight, as there is no real accountability or redress.

At the same time, Assembly members also saw value at the core of the democratic system:

  • We feel hopeful about how democracy is working in the UK because there are laws that protect our rights to vote and be represented.
  • We feel optimistic about how democracy is working in the UK today because our democratic system is better than in many other countries. Here we can all participate in, and talk freely about, our democracy without fear of facing consequences. Also, everyone can influence change via voting, standing for parliament, joining a political party of their choice, initiating petitions etc.

Assembly members wrote 20 statements in total, which are available in full on our blog post on the subject.

What do Assembly members recommend?

Alongside these statements, Assembly members agreed over 50 specific recommendations on how different aspects of the UK’s democracy should work. These will be published in full in the spring. Some core recommendations relevant to current debates include:

On integrity:

  • 98% agreed that ‘Lying or intentionally misleading parliament should be able to be identified as ‘contempt of parliament’. As well as being made to give a public apology, MPs who break this rule should be fined or otherwise punished.’
  • 98% agreed that ‘The Code of Conduct for MPs, peers and government ministers needs to be strengthened to give clear guidance on what a breach will result in. Regulators need to recommend consistent sanctions to all parties and levels of office, and the public should be able to expect these to be imposed.’

On the roles of government and parliament:

  • 92% agreed that ‘Parliament needs to be able to play a stronger role in scrutinising the actions of government. Collectively, it represents the voice of the electorate as a whole, whereas not everyone voted for the government.’
  • 78% agreed that ‘The Prime Minister should only be able to call an early general election if it is supported by a vote in the House of Commons.’

On the role of the courts:

  • 92% agreed that ‘There is an important role for the courts to play in limiting the laws that can be passed by government when they are seen to challenge basic rights and core democratic principles.’

Professor Alan Renwick, project lead and Deputy Director of the UCL Constitution Unit said:

'The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK shows that concerns about standards in public life have really cut through. Almost every member of the Assembly, regardless of political allegiance, was angry and frustrated and wanted their elected representatives to do better.

'It’s often said that people aren’t interested in political processes – they just want government to deliver. It’s true that few people pay much attention to the fine details of democratic institutions. But people do want a system in which politicians act with integrity and where power isn’t unduly concentrated with ministers in government.

'Most people, across different political affiliations, think that’s not the case at present.'

Calum Green, Director of Advocacy & Communications at Involve said:

‘The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK shows the public, when given the time to consider the current state of politics, are profoundly concerned about the failure of elected leaders to live up to the standards we expect. This concern was true for people from all walks of life, regardless of background. If we are to build a democracy fit for the 21st century, our politicians must do better, and be deserving of the trust and respect of the British public.’

The project that the Assembly is part of – Democracy in the UK after Brexit – will publish its first report in late January 2022, setting out the results of a large-scale survey of the UK population on similar topics to those highlighted here. Plenary sessions and presentations from the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK can be viewed on the Constitution Unit’s YouTube page.