Does the current political system meet people’s expectations?
As well as asking respondents how important they consider different things to be for democracy in general, the European Social Survey then goes on to ask respondents to rate how they think democracy is working in Britain today. Respondents are asked to indicate the extent to which they think each of the things listed in Table 1.2 actually applies in Britain. They answered using an 11-pont scale with 0 signifying that they think it does not apply to Britain at all and 10 indicating that the respondent thinks it applies completely.
Table 1.6 summarises people’s evaluations of democracy in Britain. In the first column, we show the average (mean) evaluation given to each aspect of democracy (from a maximum score of 10). The second column shows the variance in these averages. The third column shows the percentage of people who consider that each aspect of democracy does not apply in Britain i.e. rate it less than five on a 0 to 10 scale.
There is a clear consensus that some key features of democracy do apply in Britain – for example that elections in Britain are free and fair (average evaluation = 8.2) and that opposition parties and the media are free to criticize the government (7.8 and 7.7). However, evaluations of other aspects of democracy are decidedly more mixed. This is particularly true as regards people’s evaluations of how far democracy in Britain serves to involve its citizens in decision-making or ensure the material well-being of its citizens. Over one in three people (36 per cent) believe that the government in Britain does not explain its decisions to voters – rating this aspect below the mid-point of five on the evaluation scale and nearly two in five people (38 per cent) believe that the government does not protect its citizens from poverty.
By comparing people’s evaluations of democracy in Britain with their expectations regarding democracy in general, we can see how far the performance of the current political system matches – or fails to match up to – what the public think democracy should deliver. To what extent do people perceive a democratic deficit in Britain i.e. do people feel that the current system is failing to live up to their high expectations? Is there any evidence of a perceived democratic surplus i.e. do people feel that some democratic rights and freedoms have been extended too far and should be scaled back?
Table 1.7 presents a measure of the perceived democratic deficit or surplus on each item. It measures the difference in the extent to which the respondent thinks something applies in Britain and how important they consider that thing to be for democracy in general. Assuming that people will be more concerned by a failure to deliver something they consider to be particularly important, differences are weighted according to the importance attached to that item, with more important items generating a proportionally bigger deficit/surplus. The resulting measure ranges from -1 to +1 with negative scores indicating that there is a perceived democratic deficit and positive scores a surplus. There is no evidence that people want less democracy than the British political system currently delivers; the average score on each items is less than 0. People in fact perceive a significant democratic deficit in a number of areas including equal treatment by the courts and the government’s ability to achieve social outcomes or involve citizens sufficiently in decision-making.
Table 1.7 also shows the proportion of people who perceived there to be a democratic deficit i.e. who rate an item as being extremely important for democracy (scoring it nine or ten on the importance scale) but do not think it applies in Britain (evaluating it less than five on the 0 to 10 evaluation scale). Nearly one in five people (18 per cent) feel that the courts do not live up to their expectations in terms of treating everyone equally and around one in seven (15 per cent) perceive a deficit in terms of the quality of the information the media provide.
There is also a substantial group of people who perceive there to be a democratic deficit in terms of the delivery of material outcomes; nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of people think both that it is extremely important in a democracy for the government to protect its citizens against poverty and that this does not apply in Britain. Similarly, there is a perceived deficit in terms of how well the government communicates with voters; 24 per cent of people think that it is extremely important that the government explains its decisions to voters but that this does not apply, while 17 per cent think it is extremely important that citizens have the final say in key decisions via referendums but that this does not apply sufficiently in Britain.
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- Blair, T. (2000), speech on Britishness, London, Mar 28. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.guardian.co.uk/britain/article/0,2763,184950,00.html. Brown, G. (2006), “The Future of Britishness”, speech presented to the Fabian Society’s New Year Conference, London, 14 January. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.fabians.org.uk. Cameron, D. (2011), speech on radicalization and Islamic extremism, speech presented at the Munich Security Conference, Munich, 5 February. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=329.
- The European Social Survey provides nationally representative probability samples of all residents aged 15 and over in a number of European countries and covers a wide range of social and political topics. Six rounds of the survey have been carried out to date. Unlike the British Social Attitudes survey, the European Social Survey collects data for the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. However, NI cases are excluded from the analysis presented here and the remaining respondents were asked to evaluate democracy in Britain. The data for this chapter are from Round 6 of the survey conducted in the UK between September 2012 and January 2013. European Social Survey Round 6: European Social Survey Round 6 Data (2012/13). Data file edition 1.2. Design weights were applied in all analyses. Post-stratification weights were not available at the time of analysis but have since been added to the data file (Edition 2.0). Further information about the survey can be found at: www.europeansocialsurvey.org.
- European Values Study (2011): European Values Study 2008: Integrated Dataset (European Values Study 2008). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA4800 Data file Version 3.0.0, doi:10.4232/1.11004.
- European Social Survey Round 6 data were available for 24 countries. A second data release in May 2014 included data from further countries.
- The full question wording was:
Now some questions about democracy. Later on I will ask you about how democracy is working in Britain. First, however, I want you to think instead about how important you think different things are for democracy in general. There are no right or wrong answers so please just tell me what you think
- The four groupings are informed by theory and have been shown to work well empirically, producing high Cronbach’s alpha scores. Electoral dimension α = 0.80. Liberal dimension α = 0.82. Social dimension α = 0.74. Participatory dimension α = 0.71.
- Bases for Table 1.2 are as follows:
Mean scores are based on the average response given by all those expressing an opinion. There is obviously a question regarding how reasonable it is to expect people to have thought about and formed meaningful opinions about all of the specific aspects of democracy asked about in the European Social Survey questionnaire. However, although around 5 per cent of respondents did answer “don’t know”, the vast majority of respondents were able to give an answer European Social Survey data showed.
Respondents with no educational qualifications are also less likely to hold an opinion about the requirements of democracy – with levels of “don’t knows” ranging from 9 per cent to 15 per cent across items – as are young people under 25 (7 per cent to 14 per cent “don’t knows”).
Whether people would actually participate in a referendum is another matter. Support for direct democracy in principle is not always matched by high turnout in practice. In the 2011 referendum regarding the electoral system used to elect MPs, for example, turnout was just 42 per cent nationally (www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/journalist/electoral-commission-media-centre/news-releases-referendums/Complete-set-of-provisional-turn-out-figures-for-referendum-now-published). Turnout in the 2012 elections to elect local police commissioners was even lower.
European Social Survey respondents are asked:
In politics people sometimes talk of “left” and “right”. Using this card, where would you place yourself on this scale, where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?
Responses 0 to 4 on the scale are categorised as being on the political left, 5 is categorised as centrist (group not shown in analysis) and responses 6 to 10 are categorised as being on the political right.
The items were the same as in Table 1.2 with one exception. Respondents were not asked to evaluate whether “… the courts are able to stop the government acting beyond its authority” applies in Britain. This item is not therefore included in any subsequent analysis.
The full question wording was:
Now some questions about the same topics, but this time about how you think democracy is working in Britain today. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, so please just tell me what you think
Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
Responses on the importance and evaluation scales were rescaled to be between 0 and 1 rather than 0 and 10. The democratic deficit measure for each item, y, was then calculated as follows: (Importance of y (0 to 1) – Evaluation of whether y applies in Britain (0 to 1)) x Importance (0–1).
Bases for Table 1.7 are as follows:
European Social Survey data collected in 2010/11 as part of a module of questions on Trust in Justice provide further insights on this topic (Jackson et al., 2010). As many as 50 per cent of people in the UK think that a poor person is more likely than a rich person to be found guilty of an identical crime they did not commit while 30 per cent of respondents feel that someone of a different race or ethnic group from the majority would be more likely to be found guilty. (European Social Survey Round 5 Data (2010). Data file edition 3.0.)
The average deficit on the social democracy dimension was -0.35 among those placing themselves on the left of the political spectrum, -0.25 among those in the centre and -0.20 among those on the right.
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