The study has found evidence in support of a decline in public trust in political leaders and government. The level of trust varies over time across people (demographic groups). However, across the UK, a large majority of the participant local councillors (who are close to local people) perceive that the trend is downward. Interestingly, there are no significant variations among the respondents related to their demographic profile, which may be partly due to a relatively small sample size. A deputy leader of a party group says: “…collective politicians where people have little respect for, but individual politicians, when they meet them – in my experience people genuinely like them and respect them.” However, a leader of a party group has a different experience: “…when you speak to people on the door steps … the perception that you are all the same. It does not matter whether you are … whatever, you are all the same.”
As to the question of why the level of public trust in political leaders is going down, Brexit is at the heart of the recent falling. However, when asked, a vast majority of the local politicians in the study thought that unethical political leadership behaviour were part-causes of the low level of public trust. A leader of a party group eloquently summarises:
We had a number of scandals over the years things like MPs’ expenses scandals where people claimed money they should not have done, all those kind of things. And, they do tend to create a perception that politicians are there for themselves not for the wider good. People of the country promised a referendum and they were told their views would be binding. And, since then we had a decisive vote to leave European Union and it has not been enacted. So, then when you get into a situation where politicians promised to deliver something and they don’t and completely break their promise all together. I think it can create a really bad situation where there is a real disconnection between public and people who are here to serve them.
Nevertheless, politicians are just humans. Naturally they sometimes (hopefully not very often) err. When asked, a vast majority of respondents said they joined politics with the best of intention (public service). Sometimes people end up acting wrongly if the system is not geared to preventing it. Politics is a social phenomenon, no different from other walks of life. Unscrupulous behaviour cannot be completely eliminated either from politics or from other parts of the society. However, political leaders, with the mandate to govern the community, have both moral and legal obligation not only to improve their own conducts but also to create (and implement) a system that is conducive for others to conduct themselves well. The answer to the question of how, which is the focus of the study, is discussed in the following subsections: The Regulatory Framework, Being a Moral Person, and Being a Moral Leader.
In the Context of the Regulatory Framework
A large majority of the local politicians who participated in the study think that the code of conduct for councillors helps them to understand what the council and the public expect from them. It also gives the public a means to challenge politicians. A chair of an Overview and Scrutiny Committee who has been a councillor for 30 years states: “I lived under a situation where there was not a code of conduct and now there is one. There is a qualitative difference.” The code has created awareness for many, though for some it is just another documented set of rules.
Apart from the code of conduct, there is also a set of party rules that controls the conducts of councillors. It is useful to have one, yet it may not be an ideal mechanism where politicians are judging themselves. Some councillors have little confidence in party disciplinary process because it was flawed and manipulated by political leaders. Party leadership intervened for political reasons and there were no punishments for wrongdoings. This created dilemmas for others who wanted to abide by the rules. Both politicians and public seem to have relatively more confidence in the monitoring officer, independent standard committee, commissioner or ombudsman that they will assess any breach of code or rules properly and fairly—partly because, to some extent, it is taken out of the hands of politicians. Nonetheless, there were occasions when the system was exploited—politicians complained against their rivals, and the public against politicians for political and personal reasons.
For some, the code is not as clear as they would like it. They feel it requires a bit of subjective interpretation, and has not helped much in terms of improving behaviour among councillors, or between councillors and others, or behaviour in social media. Nevertheless, neither the code nor rules can encompass every eventuality. Also, like any other set of rules and regulations, “…you could have the most perfect code of conduct in the world on paper and if it is not implemented properly then it is next to useless” (a deputy Mayor). Sometimes there are problems with how the code is overseen and managed. And how one interprets the code is also a question of leadership. Sometimes people may try to bend the code and then get away with it if the whip, leader or monitoring officer is not strong enough. Sometimes people who are in charge are afraid to challenge others when they think it may rebound on them. Sometimes, for some people, the code is toothless because there is limited provision for sanctions against councillors (elected representatives). Equally, sometimes there is not sufficient reward/incentive for good conduct.
When asked, a large majority of respondents thought that induction/training for the code and other ethical issues such as diversity, equality and public values is useful, particularly for newly elected councillors. It might be even more helpful for those who are new to politics if the induction/orientation (or ethical screening) takes place during the process where the party leadership selects the candidates for election.
To sum up, and move on to the moral framework, in the words of a leader of a council:
I certainly think they are helpful and it is better to have a code of conduct and a set of rules than not. But I also like to think that I and majority of councillors would have the right motivation and take the decision that were consistent with the motivation even if the code of conduct did not exist. But, I think it is helpful to have one, but it is not something I refer to very often or I refer to help my decision. It is my belief and moral framework that guide the majority of time.
Being a Moral Person
When asked, a vast majority of informants believe that ethics matters in politics. “It is one’s personal make up that dictates the type of person we are – how we act in public … how we act as a councillor” (a deputy leader of a council). Sometimes, like others, politicians find themselves in dilemma. “People do not mind if you are confused as long as they feel that they trust you” (a councillor). Everybody has his (or her) own view on what is right and what is wrong. Yet, we have a moral obligation to treat others with a certain degree of respect even when we disagree with each other.
Trust is a key component of political capital (Kjaer, 2013). Trust erodes when our words and actions do not accord. It significantly affects trust when politicians promise the public something in order to get themselves elected, and it then becomes obvious that they can’t or won’t do what they said they would. A vast majority of councillors thought, when asked, that sometimes politicians over-promise to get elected or re-elected and then fail to deliver, which is not ethical and has a negative impact on public trust. “I think sometimes politicians take a calculated view of … what they are going to promise and whether they can get out of that promise, how effective that promise will be in getting them voted and how they can sort of square out that promise later” (a councillor). Sometimes, politicians vie for public support against each other because of rivalry within and between the parties. So, a party group leader suggests:
You have got to actually do what you say you are going to do. You know you cannot be elected and then go against what you said you were going to do. So, I would like to see a lot more honesty from politicians and I would like to see a manifesto setting out clearly what a party will do. I accept there are times when situations have changed and new information has come to light and you have to change the course you are on, and in that situation politicians need to engage with electorates and explain to people that things have changed instead of pretending that they have not changed and that was the plan all along.
Yet, the problem (apparently) with saying that is that you may lose the vote, or it may bring an end to your leadership, which presents an ethical dilemma for many politicians. It is still important to tell people things as they are rather than what they want to hear. Occasionally, there are tensions between being effective and doing the right thing. Some politicians believe sometimes they need to lower their moral standards for practical reasons. Some thinks if you do not have right values you should not be a councillor. Others think you can be principled and moderate in your view at the same time (following the middle path). When a leader has competence (right set of skills to do the job) combined with honesty he may become a powerful force for a real positive change in politics and the wider society.
Being a Moral Leader
When asked, a vast majority of councillors believed political leaders have important roles to play in influencing the conducts of their followers and creating an ethical culture in the local authority. Local politicians are quite visible in the community because of their close proximity to the local people, who can easily see them and observe their activities and understand whether they are behaving rightly or not. The public, council officers and fellow councillors, particularly new councillors, may recognise and copy senior politicians’ good behaviour. Leaders may lose respect from them if their behaviours are not appropriate. A recently elected councillor says: “Certainly when you are new you look at more experienced people and leaders, how they do things.” There is a perception that if leaders are behaving properly then people will behave properly; if leaders aren’t, why should they? Hence, “senior politicians should abide by the rules and also encourage their supporters to abide by the rules” (a deputy Mayor).
Role modelling (setting a good example) is an important component of ethical leadership. It requires sincere actions; not just rhetoric, which people will eventually see through. Ethical leaders set the tone at the top and challenge those who are not behaving ethically. A deputy leader of a council observes: “We have had incidents where candidates have behaved inappropriately and the leadership has taken a firm stance on those issues and acted in my view appropriately on them and the group has supported those actions.” Followers and supporters are likely to behave ethically by observing that good behaviour is rewarded by offering appropriate positive incentives, and bad behaviour is punished by offering negative incentives through due disciplinary process. However, in councils where there is no opposition party (one party has all the seats—a monopoly power), there are examples of party disciplinary process being manipulated. In those cases, it may not be possible to rely on the leadership. There needs to be a robust set of rules, code, disciplinary process and a controlling mechanism. Yet if this system is not implemented properly it may become useless. A moral leader sets good examples and challenges people who behave unethically. A party group leader explains:
If an individual councillor is going to do something then it is not necessarily the fault of the group leader but it is certainly the responsibility of the group leader to take a firm line against those actions and to ensure that they are dealt with appropriately. Because if you don’t, it sends out completely the wrong message to the public. It may be construed as acceptance of the behaviour and of course it sends out a message to others that it is acceptable to do those things.
Leaders (across levels) should do what they say they will do otherwise they may lose their moral credibility. “It is also up to the party organization (leadership) to say, ‘hey, don’t say you are going to deliver something you cannot deliver, you have not got the money, ability or power to do that. So don't say you can’” (a cabinet lead). Sometimes, due to changing circumstances, it might not be possible to fulfil a commitment, but that needs to be honestly explained and communicated to the public.
To sum up, the ethical political leadership process begins with striving to become a moral person, and then a moral leader. In the words of a councillor: “I think it means just doing what you say you will do, not lying, not misleading people, but trying to represent people as best as you can.” If you continually do that over a long period of time most people are likely to trust you, even during difficult times.