Each year, the Hansard Society conducts an Audit of Political Engagement, which seeks to measure how the public views and engages with the political process. The latest Audit demonstrates that public dissatisfaction with our political systems and actors is worryingly high and increasingly intense. However, as Lawrence McKay explains, disaffection has not yet translated into disengagement.
The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement, now in its sixteenth year, is an annual study, giving a benchmark to measure public opinion about politics and the political system, as well as how engaged people are in the process. The Society describes it as an ‘annual health check’ – and this time round, the patient is in a bad way. Commentators love to declare a crisis, and the Society has often cautioned against such framing. More often than not, there is more continuity than change. Yet this year’s findings can hardly be described any other way.
Opinions of the system of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal. People are pessimistic about the country’s problems, and large segments of the public seem willing to entertain radical changes which would alter or even undermine our democracy. While they are no less engaged in the democratic process, many people increasingly want to keep their distance and not to take part in decision-making.
Discontent: more widespread and more intense
The striking thing about this year’s Audit is that not only are more people unhappy, but the intensity of their discontent is unprecedented. Our ‘core indicators’ are the best evidence that something is amiss – in particular, our question on ‘the present system of governing Britain’, and how much it could be improved. We find that discontent is at its historical peak, with more than seven-in-ten feeling it needs either ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement. Furthermore, people are moving into the most negative category. The proportion who stated that it needs ‘a great deal’ of improvement, at 37%, has roughly doubled since the first Audit in 2004. This increased discontent is broad-based, occurring across all social classes, age groups and levels of education. If there is a common thread to where it occurs, it is among non-voters where discontent has risen most. It may be that people who are already disengaged are finding more reasons to hate politics, but many voters are, too.
Yet, while the wider system is held in contempt, it is mostly political actors that bear the brunt of this. We asked our respondents to give their level of confidence in different groups ‘to act in the best interests of the public’. Groups like civil servants and judges generally garnered positive ratings, but the government, MPs, Lords and political parties were judged more negatively, with around two-in-three expressing low or no confidence. The exception – in line with results of previous studies – was local councils and the Scottish government who were seen somewhat more positively than UK-wide actors.
This year’s Audit also allows us to dig more deeply into in which ways people lack confidence in parties in particular. We asked a classic question about the ‘responsiveness’ of parties: whether a respondent agreed that they ‘don’t care about people like me’. Half of respondents agreed with this analysis, with only about a quarter disagreeing. However, a much more widely held belief was that the parties were too divided to ‘serve the best interests of the country’. A full three-quarters of people agreed with this, and at 40%, double the proportion ‘strongly agreed’ with the ‘too divided’ statement as agreed with ‘don’t care’.
We can’t say for sure, but it seems likely it is a new phenomenon for people to believe the parties in general are divided. British Election Study data shows that during the last general election campaign, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were overwhelmingly viewed as united, with Labour the exception. In this regard, the sense of chaos around Brexit may have a unique capacity to spread discontent beyond those who feel ‘left behind’ and uncared for.
This discontent is, in many ways, unsurprising given how people – across diverse social groups – appraise the state of the country. By a margin of 56–21, the public agrees that ‘Britain is in decline’. Meanwhile, two-thirds of people say that there are ‘no clear solutions’ to most big issues facing the country today. On the one hand, this mix of negativity and the inability to see a clear way out could be toxic. However, it may be good that we have a realistic appraisal of politics, rather than believing in the easy solutions characteristic of so-called ‘populists’.
Have we taken a populist turn?
In another respect, Britain looks more ripe for populism. Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that ‘Britain’s system of government is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful’. It is unsurprising that the ‘rigged system’ narrative caught fire in the United States, where money in politics is highly visible: yet the UK’s very different system is judged in much the same way.
The most headline-grabbing finding from the Audit was that, by a margin of 54–23, Britons agree that the country needs ‘a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’. The support for a ‘strong leader’, with its echoes of Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolás Maduro and Vladimir Putin, is disquieting. Yet it has been widely misunderstood. The Times headline on this finding stated that ‘Brexit-weary voters long for political strongman’: but in reality, the link to Brexit is less clear. We based the ‘strong leader’ question on Ipsos MORI’s Global Populism surveys, which asked the same questions in November 2016 and June–July 2018. All three surveys took place after the 2016 EU referendum vote, but MORI’s surveys nonetheless preceded the protracted parliamentary wrangling and apparent ‘Brexit fatigue’ among the electorate. There is virtually no difference between the findings of the three surveys, with roughly 2–1 support for a ‘strong leader’.
Whatever is driving support for political strongmen, it is not Brexit. This is not surprising, because support for a strong leader was not related to a lack of confidence in MPs, and even most of those who thought the system of government was working well supported a strong leader. Rather, the most strongly related attitude was a sense of decline: among the group who believe ‘Britain is in decline’ a vast majority support a ‘strong leader’, but among those who disagreed, more opposed a ‘strong leader’ than supported one. Unfortunately, perceptions of decline – as established above – are very common.
People in the UK endorse the idea of a strong leader, but it might be that when presented with a stronger form of authoritarianism, their attachment to parliamentary democracy would reassert itself. We also asked whether people agreed that ‘Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament’, or whether ‘It would be risky to give the government more power to deal directly with many of the country’s problems’. People were much more hesitant to endorse rule by government fiat than ‘strong leaders’, but, even so, a troubling number – 42% – agreed with the former statement. It was this attitude where the impact of Brexit was more keenly felt, with nearly six-in-ten Remainers endorsing the ‘too risky’ view and only four-in-ten Leavers.
Interest and engagement: a silver lining?
So far there is little sign of good news in the Audit. But when we look at engagement, we might expect to see a more positive story. For instance, in recent months, we have seen the most popular e-petition since the system was instituted, one of the UK’s largest ever popular demonstrations, and record-breaking viewing figures for BBC Parliament. Indeed, if there is a silver lining, it is that core indicators of certainty to vote, and interest in and knowledge of politics, remain stable at average or above-average levels. Over 13 different kinds of engagement, 11 saw no noticeable decline on the previous year. People are turned off, but have not yet tuned out.
Nonetheless, more and more, people want to engage at a distance, rather than be actively implicated in decision-making. Roughly a third of people say they do not want to be involved ‘at all’ in either local or national decision-making: a rise of nearly 10% since last year. It is striking that, though the focus has been so much on the failures of the Westminster parliament, recent political developments have also led people to be averse to engagement in local politics. Curiously, the decline in desire for engagement is not, however, connected to diminishing expectations of the results of engagement. Since 2003, the Audit has asked whether ‘When people like me get involved in politics, they really can change the way that the UK is run’. The figures on this score are similar this year to the long-run trend. If the perceived benefits of political action are not declining, then it may be that the perceived costs are rising.
Rising to the challenge
As ever, it is easier to talk about the problems than the solutions. The results of the Audit nonetheless offer capacity for reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of two major approaches to political reform outlined by Gerry Stoker: ‘protective’ and ‘developmental’.
The ‘protective’ approach stresses the need for assurance that ‘decisions are taken on grounds of general interest and not at the behest of specialist interests’, but does not stress greater popular involvement. Under this approach, ‘The focus would be on plans to clean up politics’ and make politicians more accountable: research involving the Society showed that people believed this would make a difference to their views of the system. Indeed, significant moves were made in this direction over the last decade: MPs’ expenses were taken out of their own hands; a system of recall was brought in for MPs who receive prison sentences or long suspensions from the Commons; and the government legislated for greater transparency around lobbying. Yet this year’s Audit finds that nearly two in three people believe we have a ‘rigged system’.
This might imply that the protective approach is a dead end – that without widespread popular involvement, people will always harbour suspicions about what goes on behind closed doors. Alternatively, it may not have gone far enough: for instance, in the area of lobbying transparency, it has been argued that reforms were far too narrow, leaving a wide array of people and practices untouched.
The ‘developmental’ approach, meanwhile, is captured by H L Mencken’s famous statement: ‘the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy’. Political discontent results from a sense of powerlessness and, ‘as such, should spark a major set of interventions to support citizen empowerment’. Moves in this direction, such as citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting, have not been vigorously pursued by British governments and where they have occurred, have rarely been sustained: reforms could consequently move much further in this direction. Yet the Audit throws up a challenge to this approach, too: we find that most people want to engage only at a distance. The positive effects of the developmental approach for those who do engage are well evidenced, but how the public at large can be brought in is an unanswered question.
Thus, these findings pose real challenges for both approaches and the variety of reform proposals that adopt them. Yet one thing is for sure: with the most common view of the system being that it needs ‘a great deal’ of change, we cannot afford to think small.
About the author
Lawrence McKay is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester researching political representation and discontent; his work is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Hansard Society. He tweets as @lawrencemckay94
He has written this post in a personal capacity and the views expressed above should not be read as being those of his employers, colleagues or funders.