In the face of spending cuts and tighter household incomes, people are turning inwards to focus on looking after themselves and their families - warns Hansard Society
Well, 2011 was a momentous year for British politics. But what influence, if any, did it have on political engagement? Did a year punctuated by protest marches in the spring, riots in the summer and an occupation movement in the autumn prompt more people to get involved in politics? And did the first nationwide referendum in over 30 years spark any greater interest in the way our political system works? We have been tracking public attitudes in this area for nine years. Last year's Audit of Political Engagement
was a high watermark in levels of public interest in and knowledge of the political process, driven largely by the general election and the formation of the coalition. Nonetheless, there was a growing sense of indifference to politics; greater levels of interest and knowledge were not matched by greater satisfaction with or greater engagement in the political process beyond voting itself.
This year's audit suggests that indifference has hardened into something more serious. The trends in indicators such as interest in and knowledge of politics, certainty to vote and satisfaction with the system of governing are downward, dramatically so in some instances. It points to a public that is turning away from national politics. The public mood can be summed up as disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged. The proportion of the public that say they are 'very' or 'fairly' interested in politics has plummeted by 16 percentage points and now stands at just 42 per cent; the lowest level ever recorded in the audit series. Perceived knowledge of politics has also fallen to 44 per cent, a decline of nine points in a year.
This is reinforced by the fact that less than half the public – some 48 per cent - now say that in the event of an immediate general election, they would be certain to vote. It is a decline of 10 points and again the lowest ever level recorded in our research. Just 55 per cent of people report voting in the last general election, when we know turnout was 10 points higher. This suggests a considerable portion of the electorate are either unconsciously forgetting or actively deciding not to report that they voted. And for the first time, less than a quarter – some 24 per cent - of citizens think the system of governing works reasonably well. It is a decline of seven percentage points in a year. The increased negativity in public attitudes appears to be strongly linked to the current government. It means that coalition politics does not appear, so far, to have been good for political engagement.
The grim national picture looks little better at the local level. While people are more likely than last year to agree that getting involved locally can be effective at bringing about change – 56per cent, up five points - a smaller proportion than ever say they actually want to get involved themselves. Three years ago, almost half of the public - 48 per cent - said they would like at least some involvement in local decision-making. This fell to 43 per cent last year and now stands at just 38 per cent. A quarter of the public now say that the do not want to be involved 'at all' in local decision-making. And this decline in people's desire for involvement is matched by a decline in their levels of reported activity. In 2010, 29 per cent of citizens said they had done some voluntary work in the last two or three years. This year, only 21 per cent said the same. These findings display a growing challenge for the United Kingdom government's 'Big Society' agenda. Despite more people seeing the efficacy of getting involved locally, fewer than ever show seem likely to do so.
Evidence from focus groups held alongside the survey reveal that, in the face of spending cuts and tighter household incomes, people are turning inwards to focus on looking after themselves and their families. There was also a strong feeling among participants of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the economic issues and the constant media coverage of them, culminating in a mixture of desensitisation and withdrawal. After many years of stability in public attitudes to politics, attitudes that have been largely unmoved by the expenses crisis, the hung parliament and the formation of a coalition government - such distinct downward movement this year is concerning. Whether this is a blip or the start of a long-term trend of greater negativity is too early to say but when only a quarter of the public agree that the system of governing works even mainly well, questions arise about the long-term capacity of that system to command public support and sustain confidence in the future.Matt Korris is a research fellow at the Hansard Society, in the United Kingdom, and author of the Audit of Political Engagement