The key questions we have examined in this chapter are whether the health of British representative democracy is in trouble, and whether today's young people are more disengaged than previous generations. As politicians and the parties begin to prepare for the 2015 general election, they will want to keep in mind the following four key points from our findings.
Firstly, a majority of the British public does engage with the political system: they vote in general elections, they affiliate themselves to a particular political party and they feel a civic duty to vote. True, there are concerns about a medium-term trend in declining participation, with lower turnouts at general elections, reduced partisanship and less of a belief that it is one's duty to vote. But still more people engage than not. That said most people remain resolutely uninterested in politics itself.
Secondly, there are signs of increasing engagement with politics: interest in politics has fluctuated over the last 30 years, but is now higher than in 1986; overall people are reporting increased political activity, such as signing a petition; after a long period of steady decline, people's belief in their duty to vote has risen slightly over the last few years; and the long-term trend in people's belief that they can make a difference is upwards, even if most people still feel they cannot do so.
However, in contrast with some of the positive messages above, trust in politicians remains at very low levels, and has shown no real signs of recovery. People continue to believe that MPs lose touch quickly, and that it does not make much difference who is in power.
Lastly, there are large differences in engagement levels between the young and the old, and between those who have more educational qualifications and those who have fewer. So high level concerns about the future of representative democracy must remain, especially as the signs are that the older, more engaged cohorts of the electorate are being replaced by a generation less engaged: on key measures such as affiliation to any political party, today's young people are more detached than yesterday's young people. However, increasingly, even today's older cohorts are now also showing some decreased affinity with political parties over time.
With the next general election two years away at most, our evidence of some small signs of increased public interest in politics offer an important opportunity to the political parties. In this respect, we raise four further points:
- A large majority of the public still identifies with a particular political party, but we are seeing a downward trend in party identification. As such, the group of non-aligned voters (always important) are becoming disproportionately influential. Politicians have always been conscious of 'wooing' the floating voter, often risking alienating their core vote. But the dominant modus operandi continues to involve spending a good deal of time criticising other political parties. An increasing consequence is that, as the major parties attack one another, they also risk turning off the non-aligned voters who are considering voting for the other party, but who could be persuaded to vote in a different way. There is a challenge for politicians to manage their communications to show more respect for the public by respecting their right to choose.
- We know from earlier British Social Attitudes chapters that the only constitutional changes that command wholesale popular support are those which hand power directly to voters, such as referenda, and the ability to recall errant politicians. Governments of all parties have legislated to increase openness and transparency but it appears these reforms have not resulted in increased trust or respect. Politicians may want to consider further shifts towards direct democracy.
- While many of the long-term trends represent a shift towards increasing mistrust of and cynicism about government and politicians, there are actually many positive signs. The long-term downward trend in duty to vote may be reversing. People feel they have more say than they used to. Interest in politics, while still low, is a little higher than it used to be. And more people are actually engaging in political activity (beyond party membership) than before. There are questions about how politicians can capitalise on this trend, and perhaps inculcate a sense that voting really does matter.
- Finally, as in any line of business, reputations are hard won and easily lost. The long-term decline in trust in politicians is corrosive, and politicians pay a heavy price for any actions that reinforce the public's mistrust. This means that politicians need to think carefully about the promises and behaviours they guarantee to abide by as they head towards the next general election. Ultimately, this is about authenticity: avoiding the pitfalls of broken promises, and living up to the highest standards of integrity.
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- 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.
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:
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:
7. Bases for Table 3.6 are as follows:
8. Bases for Table 3.7 are as follows:
9. Bases for Table 3.8 are as follows:
10.Bases for Table 3.9 are as follows:
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:
13. In 2010 our data showed:
14.Bases for Table 3.11 are as follows:
15.Bases for Table 3.12 are as follows:
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