New poll shows 6 out of 10 Britons believe that ‘politicians tell lies all the time’
'Britain's democratic system is in danger', warns Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, in the second Reuters Institute/BBC David Butler lecture on Monday 5th March. He is commenting on fresh polling evidence released today from YouGov, showing that nearly two-thirds of us (62%) believe that 'politicians tell lies all the time and you can't believe a word they say'.The poll also shows that most people have a poor view of parliament and politicians, with only a quarter (24%) saying they believed that Parliament had done a good job in recent years debating issues of concern in a 'sensible and considered way'.
At a lecture in London, organised by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and supported by the BBC, Mr Kellner says MPs collectively 'lost their nerve' in their own judgement and abdicated their responsibility by calling for more and more decisions to be taken by crude yes-or-no referendums. Mr Kellner proposes that voters alone, and not politicians, should have the power to call referendums – but that the bar should be set higher so referendums are held very rarely.
He warns: 'We are drifting towards a political system in which a combination of modern technology, mendacious journalism and angry voters will undermine representative democracy.'
The title of Mr Kellner’s lecture, 'The Second Superpower', is drawn from an article in the New York Times just before the Iraq war, which said there are now 'two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion'.
As a pollster, Mr Kellner says he fears that the 'second superpower' is in danger of having too much of the wrong kind of influence, with MPs and journalists treating simplistic interpretations of public opinion with too much respect.
In the lecture, Mr Kellner argues:
Representative democracy was never as strong as we thought. It survived as long as it did, not because it was ideal but because it enjoyed a technical monopoly. And as with many monopolies, it failed to notice when technology changed and allowed competitors to enter the fray.
During the era of the technical monopoly, there was no practical way in which voters could access the same information as MPs at the same time, and make clear their views on a day-to-day basis. Recent advances in communications and survey research mean that voters can be as well informed as MPs, and the opinion of the majority of voters can be made known almost in real time.
Mr Kellner suggests that with politics: 'As with many other businesses, such as retailing, entertainment and newspapers, technology has the power to transform the terms of trade.'
Mr Kellner proposes there is an urgent need for politicians to engage with public opinion more fully, to stop publicly abusing one another, and they need to speak more candidly and acknowledge the limits to their power.
Without such changes, Mr Kellner argues that referendums will become increasingly popular. He warns that this would be a mistake, describing them as 'too crude', and 'likely to muddle lines of accountability', adding that they are too difficult to reverse when voters dislike the consequences of referendum decisions.
Mr Kellner says: 'Referendums are not exercises in democratic purity, but deeply flawed devices that we turn to when politics fails and politicians lose their nerve.'
Mr Kellner proposes that politicians should be banned from calling referendums. Instead, he suggests a 'people’s veto' for those occasions when normal politics really does fail. If ten per cent of electors sign a petition opposing a particular Act or local council measure, then this would trigger a referendum; but to overturn a decision of the politicians, more than half the total electorate, whether national or local, would have to vote down the measure, he suggests.
Peter Kellner will deliver the Reuters Institute/BBC Butler Lecture 2012 tonight at BBC Broadcasting House. The full text of the lecture will be posted on this website afterwards at 20.00GMT