What are the implications of a democratic deficit for political engagement?
How serious is the perceived democratic deficit for the long-term health of democracy in Britain? One way in which to examine this issue is to look at the association between the public’s attitudes towards democracy and their levels of political engagement. Are dissatisfied democrats nevertheless participating in the democratic process as ‘critical citizens’ or is their dissatisfaction expressed via apathy and disengagement?
To establish whether there is an association between people’s perceptions of a democratic deficit and their propensity to participate politically, we need to discount the possibility that any relationship we observe between participation and attitudes is simply the result of people with certain background characteristics being both more or less likely to participate and to hold certain attitudes. Therefore, we ran multivariate regression analysis which enables us to look at the association between perceptions and participation after controlling for any differences in socio-demographics. We looked separately at associations with voting in elections and with engagement in non-institutionalised forms of participation, including signing petitions and taking part in demonstrations. We used four summary measures to capture perceptions of the democratic deficit, measuring the average deficit perceived on a) the four items making up the electoral dimension of democracy b) the four items making up the liberal dimension c) the two items making up the social dimension d) the two items making up the participatory dimension.
The results of our analyses, further details of which can be found in the appendix to this chapter, paint a mixed picture. There is support for the ‘critical citizens’ hypothesis that a perceived deficit need not be a sign of disengagement and may even encourage political participation. The larger the perceived deficit in participatory democracy, the more likely people were to have voted in the 2010 general election or to have participated in protest activities in the past year. People were also more likely to have participated in protest activities the larger the perceived deficit in the realisation of liberal democratic ideals.
However, there is also evidence that failing to deliver what people want in terms of material outcomes may contribute to political disengagement. Even after controlling for a range of background characteristics including education and left-right orientation, the more people perceived there to be a deficit in terms of the government’s ability to protect citizens from poverty or reduce differences in income levels, the less likely they were to have voted in the 2010 election. This is a potential challenge for all three of the main political parties: while the perceived deficit in social outcomes is largest among individuals on the left, those in the centre and on the
right also perceive a deficit on this dimension.
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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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