What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?
Results of a Survey of the UK Population
First Report of the Democracy in the UK after Brexit Project

Alan Renwick, Ben Lauderdale, Meg Russell, and James Cleaver

The past decade in UK politics has raised fundamental questions about the kind of democracy we want to live in. What role should be played by referendums? Where should the balance of power lie between government and parliament? How far should the courts be involved in adjudicating disputes or upholding basic rules? What standards of behaviour do we expect from our politicians, and how should these be maintained?

To address these questions, the researchers conducted a major new survey of UK public opinion in the summer of 2021. They asked for people’s views on the fundamentals of the democratic system and how democracy is working in the UK today. The survey was fielded by YouGov in late July 2021, with a sample of almost 6,500 people, representative of the voting age population across the whole of the UK.

This large sample size allowed the researchers to investigate attitudes across different parts of the population. It also meant that they could ask different versions of many questions to different respondents – as described in the full report – leading to more precise and detailed understanding.

The timing of the survey should be noted: it was conducted when support for the Conservative government led by Boris Johnson remained high, before confidence weakened in the final months of 2021.

The survey is part of a wider research project – funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its Governance after Brexit research programme. The project also includes a Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK and a further follow-up survey of the UK population, to be conducted in spring 2022.

Key Findings

  • Most people in the UK expressed broad satisfaction with democracy but had very little trust in politicians.
  • Most people wanted politicians who are honest, have integrity, and operate within the rules.
  • People generally preferred not to concentrate power in the hands of a few politicians, but to spread it to parliament, non-politicians, and the public.
  • Most people showed notably higher support for judicial interventions than is often supposed.
  • Most people thought that people like themselves had too little influence. But many were reluctant to get actively involved themselves.
  • There was support for mechanisms such as referendums (though often relatively muted) and for citizens’ assemblies.
  • Conceptions of democracy varied across the population and were related particularly to attitudes on Brexit and partisanship. But it is important not to exaggerate these differences. On key points there was widespread and high agreement.