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. Continue reading