The Hansard Society: Research reveals public disengagement
The Hansard Society’s latest audit of political engagement reveals worrying levels of public disengagement and growing anti-system sentiment – a trend that casts a shadow on the future of our democracy. Joel Blackwell and Ruth Fox report
The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement is the only annual health check on the state of Britain’s democracy. Each audit, based on a face-to-face opinion survey on a representative quota sample of adults, gauges public opinion about politics and the political system, providing a snapshot of public perceptions of, and engagement with, politics at a given moment in time. The Audit was first published in 2004, so this year’s, published on 8 April, is the 16th in the series.
This year’s report uncovers widespread public dissatisfaction with our system of governing, politicians and political parties – so much so that sizeable numbers are willing to entertain quite radical solutions that would challenge some of the basic tenets of our democracy.
Fifty-four percent of the public say that Britain ‘needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’; and four in ten people think that many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament.
Opinions of the system of governing are at their lowest point in 15 years – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal. Seventy-two per cent of the public say the system of governing needs ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement. This measure has risen five points in a year and is up by 12 points since the first Audit was published in 2004.
This anti-system sentiment combines worryingly with people’s pessimism about the country’s future. Well over half the public are downbeat about the state of Britain. Fifty-six percent think Britain is in decline, six in ten people think our system of governing is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful, and two-thirds of us think that there are no clear solutions to the big issues facing the country today.
And people are not confident that our politicians and political parties are capable of dealing with the challenges the country faces.
When asked whether the problem is the system of government or the people making the decisions not being up to the job, more people say the problem is the people (29%) than the system (15%). But more people think that neither the system nor the people making the decisions are good enough (38%).
Three in ten people still consider themselves at least a fairly strong supporter of a political party. But half the public think that the main parties and politicians do not care about people like them. And 75% of people think the main political parties are so divided within themselves that they cannot serve the best interests of the country. Only three in ten people say they have confidence in MPs (34%) and political parties (29%) to act in the public interest, well below the confidence levels recorded for the military (74%), judges (69%) and civil servants (49%).
When asked what kind of leadership and leaders they would prefer in the future, only marginally more people prefer experienced political parties and leaders who have been in power before (47%) to those with radical ideas for change who have not (43%). Two-thirds of the public (66%) think our politicians should be able to say what’s on their minds, regardless of what anyone else thinks about their views. The public are evenly split between those who prefer politicians who make compromises with people they disagree with (48%) and those who prefer politicians who stick to their positions (45%).
Yet despite this pessimism and growing dissatisfaction, each recent Audit – including this one – generally dispels the notion that the public are apathetic about politics. Core indicators of political engagement – certainty to vote, and knowledge of, and interest, in politics – remain stable at average or above-average levels for the Audit series.
In a year without a public vote (polling was conducted in December 2018), three in five (61%) say they are certain that they would vote in an imminent general election, and the proportion of young people (18-34) saying they are certain they would vote remains steady at 46%. Interest in politics among 18-34 year olds has continued to increase steadily in recent years and is now at its highest point in 13 years.
However, while people may have not tuned out of politics, beneath the surface, the strongest feelings of powerlessness and disengagement are intensifying.
Nearly half the public feel they have no influence at all over national decision-making – a new high for the 15-year Audit series. And 32% say they do not want to be involved ‘at all’ in local decision-making, a rise of 10 points in a year. The number who ‘strongly disagree’ that political involvement can change the way the UK is run (18%) has also hit a 15-year high, while 30% of people say they never discuss government and politics with others.
Of 13 political activities, the number of people saying they would be prepared to do ‘none’ is up 10 points in a year. And 53% say they have not done any form of online political activity in the last year. Both online and offline forms of engagement continue to be the preserve of the already politically interested and engaged.
These Audit results paint a stark picture of public attitudes to our system of governing, and our politicians and parties. Unless something changes, and there is comprehensive reform of the culture and practice of representative politics, we are storing up some of the key ingredients of a potentially toxic recipe for the future of British politics.
Ruth Fox is Director, and Joel Blackwell is Senior Researcher, at the Hansard Society