Key findings / A changing political landscape

A changing political landscape

The relatively muted reaction to key elements of the Coalition’s programme of reform might be thought to have been accompanied by a relatively quiet political mood (at least in England – following the intense public debate and an 85% turnout in the independence referendum of 2014, few would characterise the political mood in Scotland as quiet). Yet the rise of UKIP since 2012 has meant that nothing has been further from the truth. UKIP’s original raison d’être, of course, was to campaign for Britain’s exit from the European Union. We might expect that their rise in popularity would have coincided with an increased level of Euroscepticism among the British public.

Most people in Britain can, indeed, be characterised as ‘Eurosceptic’ in that they either want Britain to leave the EU (24%) or else to see the powers of the EU reduced (38%). However, Euroscepticism has been widespread since the late 1990s and while it appears to have increased further during the early life of the Coalition it has, if anything, declined slightly since 2012. Meanwhile, some aspects of the EU appear relatively popular – 69% feel it is “very” or
“quite important” that people in Britain are free to get jobs in other European countries, for example. The rise of UKIP reflects a longstanding mood on Europe rather than the development of a new one.

Moreover, in spite of the party’s apparent ability to attract votes from those who voted Conservative at the 2010 general election, UKIP’s support base cannot simply be characterised as ‘right wing’. It is true that UKIP supporters are both Eurosceptic and generally tough in their attitudes to immigrants. They are also relatively more socially conservative in their attitudes to crime and punishment as well as relationships – although those UKIP supporters who agree that same sex couples should have the right to marry (48%) now outnumber those who disagree (31%). But at the same time, UKIP supporters express a level of concern about the degree of economic inequality in British society that puts them on the left on that issue. However, they are less convinced by the traditional left-wing response to such
inequality – involving the government in redistributing wealth. Indeed, they are far more sceptical than the general public about government in general – they are less likely to trust government or Parliament, and more likely to feel that people like them “don’t have any say
about what the government does”. Thus UKIP appears to have been successful in bringing together a group of voters who are not only anti-Europe and socially conservative in outlook (including not least in their attitudes to immigration), but who are also concerned about
economic inequality and at the same time are deeply suspicious of government.

In fact, a level of scepticism about government and politicians is relatively widespread among the public as a whole too. As a result, this is another area where the public mood seems to have changed little in the last five years, despite the hope expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister shortly after the 2010 election that the Coalition would persuade people to put their “faith in politics once again” (Clegg, 2010). Trust in British governments of whatever party “to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party” remains low. In 2013 just 17% said that they trusted governments “just about always” or “most of the time” – little different from the figures for most (non-election) years since the turn of the century. Equally, 53% agree that “I don’t think the government cares much what people like me think”, a proportion that has changed little from a decade ago. Meanwhile, one undoubted casualty of the last five years is public support for the idea of having a coalition government. Just 29% now say that they prefer coalition to single-party government, well down on the 45% that were of that view in 2007, before the 2010-15 Coalition was formed.

Mind you, that does not mean that the level of public interest in politics has declined – 32% express “quite a lot” or “a great deal of interest” in politics, little different from the 29% who expressed that view as long ago as 1986. Many also continue to follow political news (with the internet yet to replace newspapers or television as the main source of such news). But the public is sceptical that politicians would take any notice if they turned this interest into action: only 16% believe that, if they made an effort to do something about an unjust law, parliament would give serious attention to their demands. As long they remain distrustful and disbelieving that politicians will act on their concerns, most people are perhaps more likely to remain a political ‘spectator’ than get involved in some more active way.

Download the full paper