Is there need for growing concern?
With a majority of the public participating in general elections, and most people feeling that they identify with one of the political parties involved, why are there discussions about an increasingly disengaged electorate? Across three key measures, we find a decline over the past 30 years in public participation with the conventional democratic process.
Voting is crucial to the health of democracy. Low turnout raises the question as to whether the outcomes of elections reflect the views of the British public as a whole. Although the majority of the British public turned out to vote at the last general election, it was by no means everybody: a third of eligible voters did not do so. Clearly, there is a section of society who chose not to exercise its right to vote on that day. Fewer people have voted in the last three general elections than they ever have in the past: the worry is that we are now on a downward trajectory (Figure 3.1). Official records for general elections between 1922 and 1997 show turnout never fell below 70 per cent (and reached a high of 84 per cent in 1950). In 1983, the year in which British Social Attitudes started, 73 per cent of the population turned out to vote, returning Margaret Thatcher with a sizeable majority. In contrast, when the Labour Party was re-elected in 2001, the proportion who voted was only 59 per cent. Although turnout was higher again in 2010, it was still lower than traditional levels. We know there are many reasons why people might turn out to vote, including the perceived difference between parties and how closely run the race is (Curtice, 2010). However, the closely fought election of 2010, while an improvement on turnout earlier this century, still did not attract participation levels as high as general elections in the 1990s and earlier. This is coupled with the fact that voting in local elections has always been comparatively low and that, too, has dropped over time. After a peak in 1990, local election turnout dropped dramatically to a low in 2000, though since then shows some small signs of recovery (Rallings et al., 2005).
Identifying with a political party is known to increase significantly the likelihood of voting for that party at election time (Clarke et al., 2004). Traditionally party identification was rooted in social class (Butler and Stokes, 1969). At the same time the Labour and Conservative parties took distinct positions on issues, mirroring their class-based support. As class self-identifications have changed and parties have reached out to non-core voters, we see a decline in partisanship and the power this once held when voting (Clarke et al., 2004).
The proportion of people who identify with a particular political party has also declined over time. Over the past 30 years, we have asked people about this using a series of questions. Figure 3.1 shows an overall decline in people saying they identified with a political party from around nine in ten people (87 per cent) in 1983 to under eight in ten (76 per cent) now. In 2012, one in five people (21 per cent) say they do not identify with any political party.
Coupled with this, there has been a drop in the proportion of people who claim to have a strong affiliation with a particular party (Table 3.1). When those who identify with a party were asked whether their attachment is "very strong, fairly strong, or not very strong", in 1987 almost half (46 per cent) of the British public said they had a "very strong" or "fairly strong" identification. By 2010, only around a third (36 per cent) of the public said this. So, not only do fewer people feel they identify with any political party, but among those who do, fewer are expressing a strong engagement.
A civic duty to vote?
A decline over time in the proportion of people feeling attached to any one political party does not necessarily mean that there has been a decline in people feeling that they have a civic duty to vote, an issue which may be more strongly related to feelings around the rights and freedoms associated with being a British citizen than allegiance to a political party. However, British Social Attitudes shows that there has been a decline in numbers thinking that they have a duty to vote (Figure 3.2). Since 1987 (asked most recently in 2011), we have asked which of the following statements came closest to someone's views about general elections:
In a general election …
It's not really worth voting
People should vote only if they care who wins
It's everyone's duty to vote
There has been a long-term decline in the proportion saying "it's everyone's duty to vote", from 76 per cent in 1987 to 62 per cent in 2011. That said, there has been an upturn since 2008 in the proportions saying this: perhaps the decline has halted, and is possibly reversing. Certainly, others have shown that a sense of duty to vote is one of the strongest predictors of why people cast their vote (Clarke et al., 2004), and a higher turnout in 2010 has coincided with a small increase in the proportions saying that voting is a civic duty.
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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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