Political (dis)engagement

Following the General Election and last year’s EU referendum, interest in the way people engage with the political process has grown. This raises important questions about recent trends in political  engagement in the UK and internationally.

Defining political engagement

Political engagement is an umbrella term for public behaviour and attitudes towards a political system. Intention to vote and actual turnout, trust in public institutions, knowledge of politics and participation in political activities are some of the indicators that measure the extent to which someone is politically engaged.

Voting intentions and turnout

Attitudes towards voting and actual turnout at General Elections indicate how people view their potential to influence the democratic process. The charts below show public attitudes towards voting since 1991 and turnout at General Elections since 1918.

Chart showing how scepticism towards votin has increased since 1990

The British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) shows that the proportion of people saying “it is everyone’s duty to vote” decreased from 68% in 1991 to 57% in 2013. Conversely, the proportion of people who thought that it was not worth voting rose from 8% to 14% over the same period.

Turnout at General Elections between 1922 and 1997 never fell below 70% of the eligible electorate. However, at the 2001 General Election only 59.4% of the eligible voters turned out. Turnout increased to 68.8% at the 2017 General Election, remaining below the pre-2001 level. Among devolved nations, Northern Ireland has historically registered the highest turnout, whereas Wales has the lowest.

Chart showing turnout at general elections since 1918

Trust in Government

The BSA shows that the proportion of people who say they trust the Government “just about always” or “most of the time” declined from 38% in 1986 to 17% in 2013. The proportion of people saying they almost never trust the Government nearly trebled, from 11% in 1986 to 32% in 2013.

Chart showing how trust in UK government has decreased over the last 25 yeras

Trust in the Government was higher in the UK (37%) than the EU average (31%), according to the 2015 Eurobarometer. The Pew Research Centre found that in 2015, 19% of Americans said they could trust their Government to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).

Interest in politics

The BSA shows that in 2014, 55% felt they had “a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing Britain”, up from 50% in 2004. The proportion of people who said they were interested in politics a great deal or quite a lot remained relatively stable between 1986 and 2013, rising from 29% to 32%. This was similar to the proportion of people saying they had some, or not much/none at all interest in politics.

The UK is among the countries with the lowest level of interest in politics in the EU: the 2015 Eurobarometer found that 49% of UK citizens had a medium or strong interest in politics, compared to the EU average of 61%, 78% in Sweden and 77% in Germany. Pew Research Centre polling found that 51% of Americans said they followed “what’s going on in government and public affairs” most of the time and 26% some of the time.

Engagement in political activities

In their Audit of Political Engagement 2017, the Hansard Society identified a list of 12 political activities to analyse people’s actual and potential participation in the political process. In 2017, 31% of respondents had not undertaken any of the 12 activities, compared with 50% in 2013. The reason for this was an increase in the proportion of people voting in an election (27% to 57%) and in non-electoral participation, such as creating or signing an e-petition. In 2017, only 11% of people reported contacting a local councillor or an MP, but 42% of them said they would do so in the future if they felt strongly about an issue.

Encouraging political engagement

The causes of political disengagement are unclear. Previous governments have attempted to address it through a variety of policies, including initiatives to encourage voter registration among students and other groups, and teaching citizenship in schools. Parliament also engages in outreach activities, by working with schools and universities and through its e-petition system, which has attracted 14 million individual signatories since 2015.

Some questions for the new Parliament to consider:

  • Do low levels of political engagement threaten the legitimacy of democracy in the UK?
  • How does political engagement relate to wider developments in society, such as economic development and inequality, automation, social mobility and globalisation?
  • Will raising awareness about politics lead to higher levels of trust, satisfaction and engagement?
  • Automatic voter registration and compulsory voting could result in higher levels of engagement. Would this justify the intervention in personal liberty such measures entail?
  • Do political processes and even the electoral system need to be changed to encourage political engagement?

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament. More Key Issues posts will be published on this blog throughout July, subscribe via the homepage to get instant alerts. 

Read more about political disengagement in the UK in our briefing paper: Political disengagement in the UK: who is disengaged?

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

Political activities identified by the Audit of Political Engagement:

Donated money or paid membership fee to a charity or campaigning organisation

Voted in an election

Created or signed a paper petition

Created or signed an e-petition

Contacted a local councillor or MP/MSP/Welsh Assembly Member

Boycotted certain products for political, ethical or environmental reason

Taken an active part in a campaign

Taken part in a public consultation

Contacted the media

Attended political meetings

Donated money or paid membership to a political party

Taken part in a demonstration, picket or march