Is there less interest in having a say in how the country is run?
We see that over the past three decades participation in conventional politics has declined. Does this mean that the British public is actually less interested in politics per se than it used to be? Or perhaps that people are now less interested in engaging with central government politics, but rather express their views on how the country should be run in different ways?
Interest in politics
Firstly, we see that, no, people are not less interested than before. Table 3.2 shows people's responses to the following question, asked by British Social Attitudes since 1986:
How much interest do you generally have in what is going on in politics
... a great deal, quite a lot, some, not very much, or, none at all?
In fact, the majority of the British public has never reported being very interested in politics. In 1986, three in ten people (29 per cent) said they were interested "a great deal" or "quite a lot", and the pattern was very similar through the 1990s and 2000s. Recently, there are signs of slightly more people being interested in politics than before (although still only a minority): in 2012, 36 per cent of people say they are interested. While this has fluctuated over time (data not shown), our latest reading is seven percentage points up on our 1986 results. So, the fact that fewer people have been voting in recent general elections does not appear to be simply a function of reduced levels of interest in politics.
That said there certainly is an association between someone being interested in politics and whether they vote in a general election (Clarke et al., 2004) and the recent increase in turnout occurred mainly among the interested (Curtice, 2010). In the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey 86 per cent of those with a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of interest in politics reported voting in the May general election, compared with only 53 per cent of those with "not very much" interest or "none at all".
Other ways of engaging in the political process
Turning to the next question, of whether people are engaging in different ways in the political process, we look at the public's responses to the following question (last asked in 2011), covering both conventional and unconventional forms of engagement:
And have you ever done any of the things on this card about a government action which you thought was unjust and harmful?
Contact my MP or MSP
Speak to an influential person
Contact a government department
Contact radio, TV or a newspaper
Sign a petition
Raise the issue in an organisation I already belong to
Go on a protest or demonstration
Form a group of like-minded people
None of these
Table 3.3 shows that non-electoral participation has largely increased over the past 30 years. People are more likely now to report, for example, signing a petition (37 per cent) and contacting their MP (16 per cent) than they were in 1983 (when the figures were 29 per cent and 10 per cent respectively), though this is lower than our reading from the early 1990s and 2000s. And while the proportions remain small, we have also seen increases in the reporting of other activities such as going on a protest or contacting the media. In part, some of this is likely due to the increasing ease of signing petitions and contacting officials through online channels, widening the public's opportunities for engaging with political debates. Given that over the past few years e-petitions have become increasingly available, and recognised as a channel for putting public pressure on the government we might expect this activity to significantly increase over the coming years.
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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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