It’s really a vote of no confidence

Voter apathy has increased, but while during an election people’s interest in politics rises, there is still much to be done to engage the public and get them to the ballot box

For several years there has been a great deal of discussion and concern about low turnout in elections, voter disengagement from politics and distrust of anything “political”.

MORI recently conducted an audit of political engagement in Britain, on behalf of the Electoral Commission, to help provide an overview of political engagement, from assessing how people relate to politics in terms of knowledge, interest, action and participation, to efficacy of and satisfaction with the political process.

The research provides further evidence of the need to market politics in the widest sense, over and above the political marketing of individual candidates and parties, to demonstrate the value and benefit of politics and political institutions in society. Despite the Electoral Commission’s current advertising campaign, which has the strapline “If you don’t do politics, there’s not much you do do”, engagement in politics is most often seen as the preserve of a minority of adults.

The report’s key finding shows that about half of the British public are fairly or very interested in politics. This is the lowest level of interest in politics since MORI first asked the question in 1973. However, the level of interest has been consistently about 60 per cent over the past three decades, so it is still too early to tell if the latest result reflects a short-term blip or the beginning of a long-term downward trend.

MORI’s research found that knowledge of politics is even lower. It asked respondents how much they feel they know about politics and the role of Members of Parliament. For both these indicators, less than half said they know a fair amount or a great deal – at 42 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. When put to the test, only 42 per cent could correctly name their local Member of Parliament.

A series of seven political true or false “quiz” questions were also asked of the general public. There was a wide range of correct answers, with people more likely to correctly answer local questions than those about politics on a national or European level.

To the suggestion that you can only vote in a local election if you pay council tax, more than two-thirds of respondents correctly answered that it is false. However, to the suggestion that the European Union consists of 12 member states, less than a third of respondents correctly answered false. (At the time, the EU had 15 members.) Overall, 45 per cent of those surveyed were able to answer at least four questions correctly.

Just over half of the public (51 per cent) say they would definitely vote in an immediate General Election, which is lower than the 59 per cent turnout at the last General Election. However, MORI predicts that the propensity to vote will increase as we move towards an actual election date. Its data shows that there is a consistent theme in terms of political engagement increasing with people’s age and social class, with more than two-thirds of the over-55s being likely to vote.

The challenge is to engage younger voters, particularly 18- to 24-year-olds, of whom only 28 per cent are likely to vote. However, “likelihood” of voting is one of the few indicators where women score more highly than men.

The research examines a range of different electoral and non- electoral participation. It shows that participation in non-electoral activities such as signing petitions, taking part in a strike or boycotting certain products is the preserve of a minority, with just 14 per cent having taken part in a least three activities. Perhaps predictably, it also shows that participation generally decreases when more effort is required by the individual.

People are divided about the efficacy of getting involved in politics at a national level, with 36 per cent agreeing that getting involved can really change the way the UK is run – but 40 per cent disagreeing. At the same time, 42 per cent of respondents feel that the current system of government could be improved substantially, while 18 per cent believe that it could be improved a little. However, just two per cent believe it works extremely well and could not be improved.

Just over a third (36 per cent) of those surveyed are satisfied with the way Parliament works, but a similar amount, at 32 per cent, are dissatisfied. The remaining respondents did not give an opinion either way. Encouragingly, 41 per cent of respondents are satisfied with their own MP, with just 13 per cent being dissatisfied. However, 46 per cent had no opinion.

This finding supports a consistent trend that people are usually more favourably inclined towards the local and personal, than the (supra)national and institutional. Further evidence of this can be seen in the rating of politicians generally, as the majority of the public are distrustful of them as a collective.

This research provides several insights into the public’s view of politics, in terms of a concept, of the institutions and individuals most closely associated with it and as something worth taking part in. On all three levels, there is a great deal more to be done to demonstrate to the population that politics is something they are, can be, and should be engaged in.

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