This page contains the current draft of the full text of Chapter 14 of RAFT 2035. All content is subject to change.
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14. Politicians and trust
Goal 14 of RAFT 2035 is that politicians will no longer act in ways that are self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent.
As a result of progress towards this goal, members of the general public will hold politicians in much higher regard and respect.
This is the first in a group of two goals in the sphere of significantly improved political flourishing. With progress towards both of these goals, society will increasingly be guided by the best of human insight, in close, productive collaboration with the best of AI insight.
Politicians mistrusted and disliked
Given the key role of politics in progressing the other goals set out in this roadmap, it’s a major drawback that there is as much mistrust and dislike of politicians as is presently the case in the UK. Instead of encouraging and enabling collaboration between multiple different groups of talent and insight in the country, our politicians are creating more division and more hard-heartedness.
The 2019 Ipsos MORI “Veracity Index” poll measured the level of esteem attributed to a variety of professions by members of the British public. Respondents to the survey were asked if they generally trusted people from specified professions to tell the truth.
Politicians came at the very bottom of the list, with a positive rating of only 14%. This is worse than, for example, advertising executives (17%), journalists (26%), estate agents (30%), business leaders (35%), and bankers (43%). For comparison, the profession of nurses came out best, with a positive rating of 95%, followed by doctors on 93%, and teachers on 89%.
As a further indication of the dire state of the reputation of politicians in the UK, consider the Edelman “Trust Barometer” findings for 2019. This contains the following evaluations by members of the public of various traits of politicians in the UK:
- “Honest with the public” – judged as a most important trait by 72% of respondents, but 58% said that “few/none of the UK’s political leaders show this trait”.
- “A good communicator” – judged as a most important trait by 64% of respondents, but 38% said that “few/none of the UK’s political leaders show this trait”.
Positive roles for politicians
However, there’s nothing inevitable about politicians being held in such poor regard. The European Social Survey regularly evaluates the level of trust in politicians in 32 countries in and around Europe. The UK generally ranks about 12th best in this survey – well ahead of countries such as Poland, Portugal, Ukraine, Croatia, and Bulgaria, but significantly behind Denmark (the top of the list), Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.
Let’s remember the vital role that politicians can play in society: to deliberate, speak, and act on behalf of all citizens, protecting the community from exploitation by members of powerful subgroups. Politicians establish and then regularly review the operation of laws – laws whereby members of society collectively agree to give up various potential freedoms, and to accept specific responsibilities, in order that society gains overall with greater individual flourishing too. In this vision, to be a politician is to be a servant of the community.
In times of faster change in technology and social structures, wise political action becomes even more important. This will require politicians who can absorb new information, incorporate the latest insights from multiple fields of knowledge, update their worldviews, and revise legal and political systems speedily and decisively. In short, it will require a new calibre of politician, able to take advantage of the best understanding that becomes available, rather than sticking to the slogans that have gained them some personal popularity in the past.
Improving trust and respect
Measures that can increase the level of trust and respect for politicians include:
- Increased transparency, to counter any suspicions of hidden motivations or vested interests
- Automated real-time objective fact-checking, so that politicians know any distortions of the truth will be quickly pointed out
- The calculation and publication of “reliability indexes” for individual politicians, based on the quality of their words and deeds, as evaluated against agreed criteria
- Encouragement of individual politicians with high ethical standards and integrity
- Enforcement of penalties in any cases where politicians knowingly create or pass on false information
- Easier mechanisms for the electorate to be able to quickly “recall” a politician when they have lost the trust of voters
- Improvements in mental health for everyone (as covered in Goal 2), including politicians, thereby diminishing tendencies for dysfunctional behaviour
- Regular psychometric assessment of politicians, to highlight warning signs early
- Diminished power for political parties to constrain how individual politicians express themselves, allowing more politicians to speak according to their own true conscience
- Changes in the voting system, to enable and encourage electors to vote for the candidates they most admire, rather than feeling obliged to vote tactically.
Improving the voting system
The proposed change in the voting system will move beyond the present outdated “first past the post” voting system. Under the current system, voters frequently feel unable to vote for the candidate that most matches their own outlooks, fearing that it would be a wasted vote with the undesired side-effect of letting a deeply disliked candidate win the election. However, under a system of ranked transferable votes, voters could indicate not only their first choice, but also a complete ranking of the other candidates. This change will allow more authentic voting.
In parallel with the adoption of ranked transferable votes, a revision from single-MP constituencies to larger multi-MP regional constituencies, similar to those already used for EU elections, will address the currently over-high barriers of entry being faced by new parties. As a result, it will enable more fluid changes within the set of political parties.
Here are some important consequences of these changes in the political system:
- Politicians will need to become better at working in coalitions and alliances with people from different parties. Of course, that’s a good skill to develop!
- Politicians will have to demonstrate their own individual qualities, rather than expecting to coast into parliament merely by belonging to a popular party.
- The power of big finance to control politicians should diminish, as individual politicians can take advantage of technology to communicate their messages to the electorate at low cost but high fidelity.
- The pace of political change should increase, allowing regulations and incentives (such as subsidies) to update quickly in line with fast changes in the worlds of technology and business.
Positive examples of system change
The task of changing the electoral system faces a challenge. The parties that fare badly under the current system (and which likely have the biggest motivation to support a change in the system) are those that failed to win the election; therefore they lack the power to put that change in place. Conversely, the parties that did win the election have less motivation to make such a change.
However, we should remember that:
- Even under the first past the post system, governments sometimes consist of coalitions – as in the UK from 2010 to 2015. Minority parties can make their support of such a coalition conditional upon legislation being brought forwards to reform elections.
- Many countries serve as examples of where first past the post was formerly used, but was subsequently rejected. This list includes Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Lebanon, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, and South Africa.
To accelerate progress with Goal 14, two interim targets for 2025 are proposed:
- Obtain majority public support for the design of a system to replace first past the post election – a new system that would eliminate a cause of a great deal of the ambivalence and hostility people feel towards their MPs. This step will, moreover, establish the groundwork for the other changes described earlier.
- Agree an understanding of the actual purpose of politicians, including the key role of the public sector in a mixed economy. This understanding will also include awareness of the role of industrial strategy – a concept that has often been unfairly maligned. Effective industrial strategy is vital to the success of many of the other goals in this roadmap.
Beyond the improvements in politics resulting from this goal, the next chapter anticipates further changes in the capability and trustworthiness of politics, from a wider use of AI and other decision support tools.
For more information
- Chapter 10, “Democracy and inclusion”, of the 2017 book by David Wood, Transcending Politics
- The Electoral Reform Society
- The 2012 book by by Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
- The 2016 book by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity
- The 2018 book by Oliver Bullough, Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How To Take It Back
- A reliability index for politicians?