Politics / Can people make a difference?

Do fewer people think that they can make a difference? 

Given the British public appears no less interested in politics - and in fact is potentially more interested - and more people are turning to less conventional forms of political participation than in the 1980s, another question we look at is whether falls in electoral turnout and belief in voting as a civic duty can be linked to disillusionment with the current democratic process. Do fewer people trust governments, or politicians more specifically? Are they less likely to think the current political system is able and willing to meet its citizens' needs - sometimes referred to as 'system efficacy' (Almond and Verba, 1965)? And are people perhaps less likely to feel that they themselves have leverage over what the government does - or, in other words, what are their feelings about their personal 'political efficacy'? While there has been increasing public distrust in government, it does not appear to have led to disillusionment in the ability for the public to influence the democratic process. In fact, there is some evidence of an increase in personal efficacy.

Political trust

Since 1986, British Social Attitudes has been asking people:

How much do you trust British governments of any party to place the needs
of the nation above the interests of their own political party?

undefinedFigure 3.3 shows public levels of trust in governments declining between 1986 and 2012, similar to the decline in turnouts, partisanship (allegiance to a particular political party) and in the proportion of the population feeling that it is their civic duty to vote. In 2012, three times as many people say that they "almost never" trust governments as did in 1986 (32 per cent in 2012, up from 11 per cent in 1986). At the same time the proportion who "just about always" or "most of the time" trust government has almost halved (18 per cent in 2012, down from 38 per cent in 1986). Although the overall trend is that levels of trust have reduced, it is not linear: traditionally trust recovers in the wake of general elections (these years are shown in the figure), but is shown to be short-lived (Bromley and Curtice, 2002). There are also indications of the impact of 'sleaze' allegations surrounding the 1992-1997 Conservative government, and the spike in distrust in 2009 when the MPs' expenses scandal hit and a high of 40 per cent of the public said they "almost never" trusted government. Again, there is some indication of improved levels of trust in very recent years, an issue to which we return in our conclusions. Given the link between trust in government and likelihood of turning out to vote this is an important finding.[6]

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We found a similar pattern in relation to the question: 

And how much do you trust politicians of any party in Britain to tell the truth when
they are in a tight corner?

undefinedIn fact, trust in politicians to tell the truth when in a tight corner has never been particularly high in Britain, and is consistently below levels of trust in government as a whole. British Social Attitudes first asked this question in 1994 when 49 per cent "almost never" trusted politicians; in 2009, when the expenses scandal broke, we saw the highest ever reading in distrust, with 60 per cent of the public "almost never" trusting politicians to tell the truth. Since then there has been some recovery, with the latest reading at 54 per cent, and an increase in the proportion saying they trust politicians "only some of the time" to 40 per cent. 

System efficacy

There are three widely-used questions which help to provide an answer to the question of whether people think the political system can work for the citizens it serves. In essence, there has been little change in the views of the British public on this issue, at least since the mid-1990s. We ask respondents the extent to which they agree or disagree that: 

Parties are only interested in people's votes, not in their opinions

Generally speaking, those we elect as MPs lose touch with people pretty quickly

It doesn't really matter which party is in power, in the end things go on much the same

undefinedTable 3.4 shows the proportion of people who "agree" or "agree strongly" to each of these three statements. As each statement expresses doubts about the political system's responsiveness to voters' needs, the higher the proportion the lower the level of political system efficacy. Throughout the period, high proportions of people express low feelings of political efficacy: that their vote and involvement in the political process is not going to make much difference. However, historically, such feelings have not changed much.
There was a shift - in a negative direction - from 1994, with the lower levels of efficacy remaining since then. 

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Political efficacy

Our final question in this section was whether people now are more or less likely to feel they have any say over how governments run the country. British Social Attitudes asks how much people agree or disagree that:

People like me have no say in what the government does

Voting is the only way people like me can have any say about how the government
runs things

Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me
cannot really understand what is going on

undefinedThe first statement is about whether people think that they can influence government decisions. The second statement measures whether people think they have any say beyond their right to vote. And the last one taps into whether the running of the country is seen as something elusive, beyond the reach of the ordinary person. On all three measures, the last 30 years has actually seen a perceived improvement in how far the public can influence the running of government and a greater understanding of the parliamentary system (Table 3.5). In 1986, seven in ten people (71 per cent) agreed that they had no say in what government does, but this proportion is now six in ten (59 per cent), almost the lowest reading across the time period and a marked improvement on the late 1980s. The proportion who agree that voting is the only way to have a say is down eight percentage points from 73 per cent in 1994 to 60 per cent now. On the third statement, with rising education levels, we might expect the population as a whole to feel more able to understand politics and government now than when British Social Attitudes began in 1983. Overall, this is the case, with a decline of 12 percentage points between 1986 and 2012 in the proportion saying that government is too complicated to follow (from 69 per cent down to 57 per cent). While it is encouraging that feelings of personal political efficacy have improved on earlier readings, there is still a way to go to empower certain groups to feel that they can influence government.

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So, there has been an overall decline in the extent to which the British public trusts governments to act in the interests of the country. But, with very little change in attitudes to system efficacy and improvements in terms of personal political efficacy, we look to other explanations as to why there has been a gradual decline in engagement with conventional politics, and what that might mean for the future. We look to who votes - and thinks it is important to vote - in general elections, and consider how the views and behaviour of the young electorate (those who will be participating in elections in the medium to long-term) might shape engagement with democracy in the future. 

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Notes
  1. Following failed attempts by Parliament to block Freedom of Information requests, it emerged that politicians across the board had taken liberties in the expense claims they submitted, many profiting substantially from the taxpayers' purse. This was followed by a number of resignations, sackings, de-selections and retirement announcements, as well as a handful of prosecutions for false accounting. All MPs' expenses and allowances in 2004-2008 were examined and around £500,000 has been requested back so far. www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/may/09/mps-told-repay-profits-homes.
  2. The direction of someone's party identification is ascertained via a sequence of questions as follows: first, all respondents are asked

    Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?


    Those who do not name a party in response are then asked

    Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?


    Those who still do not name a party are then asked

    If there were a general election tomorrow, which political party do you think you would be most likely to support?


    3. This finding is sharply at variance with that reported by the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement in 2012 and 2013, which found that there had been a marked decline in interest in politics. We would note that the change in the level of reported interest in that survey coincided with a change in the contractor undertaking it and thus perhaps might be a consequence of a change in how the survey was conducted (Hansard Society, 2013).

    4. Data are as follows:

    undefined

    5.The Labour government hosted such a page on its Number 10 website, and the coalition government launched a directgov webpage in 2011 to house all e-petitions (which repeatedly crashed on its first day as it received more than 1,000 unique visits a minute) ( www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/04/government-e-petition-website-crashes). Any petition with more than 100,000 signatures is assured a chance to be debated and voted in the House of Commons. 

    6.  Data are as follows: 

    undefined
     

    7. Bases for Table 3.6 are as follows: 

    undefined

    8. Bases for Table 3.7 are as follows: 

    undefined

    9. Bases for Table 3.8 are as follows:

    undefined
     

    10.Bases for Table 3.9 are as follows:

    undefined
     

    11.Arguably the British Social Attitudes question is biased against young people, given it asks whether someone has "ever" done something. A better question might be whether an individual had undertaken an activity in the past 12 months (this is asked on the International Social Survey Programme, see Martin, 2012). 

    12.In 2012 the figures reported on British Social Attitudes were:

    undefined

    13. In 2010 our data showed:

    undefined

    14.Bases for Table 3.11 are as follows: 

    undefined

    15.Bases for Table 3.12 are as follows:

    undefined
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  • Notes
    1. Following failed attempts by Parliament to block Freedom of Information requests, it emerged that politicians across the board had taken liberties in the expense claims they submitted, many profiting substantially from the taxpayers' purse. This was followed by a number of resignations, sackings, de-selections and retirement announcements, as well as a handful of prosecutions for false accounting. All MPs' expenses and allowances in 2004-2008 were examined and around £500,000 has been requested back so far. www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/may/09/mps-told-repay-profits-homes.
    2. The direction of someone's party identification is ascertained via a sequence of questions as follows: first, all respondents are asked

      Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?


      Those who do not name a party in response are then asked

      Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?


      Those who still do not name a party are then asked

      If there were a general election tomorrow, which political party do you think you would be most likely to support?


      3. This finding is sharply at variance with that reported by the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement in 2012 and 2013, which found that there had been a marked decline in interest in politics. We would note that the change in the level of reported interest in that survey coincided with a change in the contractor undertaking it and thus perhaps might be a consequence of a change in how the survey was conducted (Hansard Society, 2013).

      4. Data are as follows:

      undefined

      5.The Labour government hosted such a page on its Number 10 website, and the coalition government launched a directgov webpage in 2011 to house all e-petitions (which repeatedly crashed on its first day as it received more than 1,000 unique visits a minute) ( www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/04/government-e-petition-website-crashes). Any petition with more than 100,000 signatures is assured a chance to be debated and voted in the House of Commons. 

      6.  Data are as follows: 

      undefined
       

      7. Bases for Table 3.6 are as follows: 

      undefined

      8. Bases for Table 3.7 are as follows: 

      undefined

      9. Bases for Table 3.8 are as follows:

      undefined
       

      10.Bases for Table 3.9 are as follows:

      undefined
       

      11.Arguably the British Social Attitudes question is biased against young people, given it asks whether someone has "ever" done something. A better question might be whether an individual had undertaken an activity in the past 12 months (this is asked on the International Social Survey Programme, see Martin, 2012). 

      12.In 2012 the figures reported on British Social Attitudes were:

      undefined

      13. In 2010 our data showed:

      undefined

      14.Bases for Table 3.11 are as follows: 

      undefined

      15.Bases for Table 3.12 are as follows:

      undefined
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