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Politics

A disengaged Britain? Political interest and participation
over 30 years

  • There is a common concern that the British public is increasingly becoming disengaged with politics. This chapter examines trends in attitudes towards politics over the past 30 years and what this might mean for the future of British democracy.

    Politics 1

    Highlights

  • Compared with 30 years ago, fewer people identify with a political party, and fewer people feel the political system works for them.

    A majority feel the political system is not working for them. In 2011 75% agreed that parties are only interested in votes, up from 64% in 1987.

    Politics 2

    Highlights

  • However, there are signs that people are increasingly feeling that they can engage with, and influence politics.

    The percentage who feel they have no say in what government does has fallen from 71% in 1986 to 59% now.

    Politics 3

    Highlights

  • Younger people are less likely to identify with a political party and less likely to believe it is a civic duty to vote compared with young people in the past.

    Two-thirds of those in their 20s or early 30s identify with a particular political party, compared with 85% of the same age group back in 1983.

    Politics 4

    Highlights

  • The more highly educated remain more engaged with politics.

    The gap between the highly educated and less well educated in terms of their interest in politics is narrowing, but it does persist: 52% of those with a degree or higher education are interested in politics, compared with 24% of those with no qualification.

    Politics 5

    Highlights

In the last general election in 2010, a majority of people in the United Kingdom - 65 per cent - turned out to vote (UK Political Info). And in 2012, seven in ten (72 per cent) Britons say they identify with a particular political party. Thus, it seems that the majority of the British public today is engaging with our democratic system. So why is there so much discussion about the declining health of Britain's representative democracy? We use 30 years of data from British Social Attitudes to address this question. We ask whether there is evidence of a decline in public engagement with how Britain is governed and, if so, why that might be. And we consider what the trends over the past 30 years can tell us about the likely future of Britain's democratic system.

It has been argued that a decline in class, as well as partisan identities, and a shift away from collective feelings of being part of a society to taking a more individualist approach, have all been linked to a reduced participation in conventional democratic routes (Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000, Clarke et al., 2004). (In fact our latest British Social Attitudes findings in the Social class chapter do not support this theory of decline in class identity, but do support the decoupling of class identity and political partisanship.) More recent attempts by government to engage the public in electoral reform seem to attract minority interest. When British Social Attitudes asked the public about the proposed electoral reforms designed to increase participation and accountability, we found lukewarm support (Curtice and Seyd, 2012). This lack of interest was reflected in the very low turnout of 15 per cent for the 2012 police crime and commissioner elections in England (The Electoral Commission, 2013). The only potential reform of majority attraction to the British public appears to be more direct forms of democracy (such as referenda and the ability to recall errant MPs). 

In addition to these wider societal changes, during the last two or three decades, there have been a number of high profile political scandals and perceived major errors on the part of governments. We know these have affected the British public's confidence with politicians, and government more generally. With the 'cash for questions' scandal in the 1990s, followed by the MPs' expenses scandal in 2009[1], high profile U-turns following the 2010 election on student fees and the NHS, it is perhaps no surprise that the British public has recently been labelled "disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged" in relation to political life in this country
(Fox et al., 2012: 9). 

With three decades' worth of information about public attitudes to politics, government and politicians, British Social Attitudes has a wealth of data to allow us to address the question of how far the public's engagement with politics has actually changed, reflecting changes in society and a history of political problems and scandals. We track people's engagement with politics across a range of dimensions: identification with political parties, interest in and understanding of politics, feelings of civic duty, political trust, and engagement with conventional and alternative routes of democratic participation. We ask whether a decline in turnout at general election time reflects a reduced interest in politics and in influencing the way in which the country is run, or whether other things are at play. In particular, we look at the views and participation of the young electorate and ask what British Social Attitudes can tell us about the future of our democracy - in the 2015 general election and beyond.

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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:

    Politics _Notes _4_Table

    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: 

    Politics _Notes _6_Table 

    7. Bases for Table 3.6 are as follows: 

    Politics _Notes _7_Table

    8. Bases for Table 3.7 are as follows: 

    Politics _Notes _8_Table_

    9. Bases for Table 3.8 are as follows:

    Politics _Notes _9_Table 

    10.Bases for Table 3.9 are as follows:

    Politics _Notes _10_Table 

    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:

    Politics _Notes _12_Table

    13. In 2010 our data showed:

    Politics _Notes _13_Table

    14.Bases for Table 3.11 are as follows: 

    Politics _Notes _14_Table

    15.Bases for Table 3.12 are as follows:

    Politics _Notes _15_Table
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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:

      Politics _Notes _4_Table

      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: 

      Politics _Notes _6_Table 

      7. Bases for Table 3.6 are as follows: 

      Politics _Notes _7_Table

      8. Bases for Table 3.7 are as follows: 

      Politics _Notes _8_Table_

      9. Bases for Table 3.8 are as follows:

      Politics _Notes _9_Table 

      10.Bases for Table 3.9 are as follows:

      Politics _Notes _10_Table 

      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:

      Politics _Notes _12_Table

      13. In 2010 our data showed:

      Politics _Notes _13_Table

      14.Bases for Table 3.11 are as follows: 

      Politics _Notes _14_Table

      15.Bases for Table 3.12 are as follows:

      Politics _Notes _15_Table
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