This morning I was at the launch of the Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit of Political Engagement, which is, as always, a laudable and valuable piece of work. For those of you who don’t want, or don’t have time, to read the whole report (and couldn’t make it to the launch) I thought I’d summarise what was said. I’ll stick to the structure that they used in this post, but I’ve also written a separate post (with a little more with opinion) on what was said by the two MPs who were invited to pass comment at the launch.
I always await the Audit with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, the former because it’s a fascinating piece of work, the latter in case it answers all the questions I’m focussing on in my own research. This year was no exception and, fortunately, they rewarded my excitement and proved my trepidation misplaced (though, from a less self-interested perspective it would be brilliant to have the Hansard Society looking into the structural and perceptual influences on political engagement). The launch event was at Parliament, which is fitting given that the focus is on engagement with that institution, though I worry that it makes it less accessible to the public at large. Still, it was open to those who wanted to attend, and was constituted by a succinct summary of some key points emerging from the data. These can be grouped under the headings of the election effect, perceptions of Parliament, and the EU referendum.
The Election Effect:
There appears to have been a post-election bounce in political engagement, with some areas showing much higher levels than in 2014. More people reported certainty to vote (up by 10% to 59%), interest in politics (up by 8% to 57%), knowledge of politics (up by 8% to 55%), satisfaction with politics (up by 7% to 33%), and a sense of efficacy (up by 3% to 35%). As you can see, the latter two areas have much lower levels of engagement than the others, which has also consistently been the case in the past. In addition, I noticed a trend that wasn’t commented on; there were distinct peaks in many of these areas in both 2010 and 2015 (i.e. general election years) with an apparent decline in between.
The above trends in engagement hold across age groups although, despite the positive movement, young people were still the least likely to report certainty to vote (39% compared to 59% overall). At the same time, the Audit recorded the highest level of party support (41% being either very or fairly strong party supporters) since the beginning of the series in 2004. I’m intrigued by whether the link between the increased engagement amongst younger people and increased party support could be, in part, the ‘Corbyn effect’, which has been widely reported to have engaged younger people.
Interestingly however, the above uptick in engagement was counterbalanced by a decline in the sense of influence at the national level reported by respondents (13% feel influential compared to 17% in 2014). As is commonly the case, the reported sense of influence was also lower at national level than at local level (with 25% feeling influential at local level), whilst also being lower than the reported desire to be involved at both local and national level (46% and 41%, respectively wish to be involved at those levels). Thus, more people wish to get involved in politics than think they can influence it, perhaps because it doesn’t necessarily make sense to get involved with a system that you can’t influence, even if you’d like to. Of course, this is an abiding problem of political engagement; people need to get involved to influence politics but they won’t feel influential unless they get involved (and perhaps not even then).
Perceptions of Parliament:
Net reported knowledge of Parliament is now positive for the first time since the Audit began (i.e. more people report being knowledgeable than report not being knowledgeable, by a whopping 5%), though it would be interesting to see some measures testing knowledge (which should relate to both local and national contexts, and practical and abstract knowledge) alongside the question on self-perceived knowledge. There were also increases (again, between 2014 and 2015) in the number of respondents agreeing that Parliament ‘holds government to account’ (up by 7% to 42%), ‘encourages public involvement in politics’ (up by 3% to 28%), ‘is essential to democracy’ (up by 12% to 73%), ‘debates and makes decisions that matter to me’ (up by 10% to 58%). This very positive looking slew of findings, it was pointed out, could be another result of the election effect.
Satisfaction with Parliament also increased (by 5% when compared to the 2013 Audit, when it was last asked) but still stands at only 32%, which is lower than in the first Audit in 2004. Satisfaction with MPs continues to be higher in relation to local MPs (35% satisfied) than in relation to MPs in general (29% satisfied), though the gap is closing due to a big (6%) bump in satisfaction with MPs in general (perhaps surprisingly). Despite the closing gap, this remains a good example of the paradox of distance, in which people rate their local services (e.g. schools or hospitals) and the people they have encountered (e.g. immigrants they know or their local MP) more favourably than they do those services (e.g. education or health) or groups (e.g. immigrants or MPs) in general. This is could be logical because it is reasonable to assume that the national picture or a wide group of people will include more variation than the specific service or person you’ve encountered and thus may not be as good overall. Also, it could be explained on the grounds that that people are likely to be more favourable towards what they know and have experienced than they are towards distant or abstract concepts. Of course, a more pessimistic interpretation could be that people are disposed to be negative towards (or prejudiced against) some services and groups generally despite encountering examples of them being good individually.
Moving on, the Audit suggested that undertaking political acts continues to be a minority pursuit. Indeed, even in terms of willingness to undertake an act in the future (rather than reporting having done so in the past), only contacting an MP or Peer had more than half (52%) saying they would do it. Willingness to create or sign a paper petition came in second (with 35%, closely followed by paper petitions with 34% willing to create or sign one), and these two areas constitute by far and away the most used, or potentially used, routes to engage with politics. Importantly, almost all of the areas of political activity had increased in terms of both reported acts and willingness to act in future, which could well be another result of the general election. Lastly in this section, there was a statistically significant increase (the only time this was reported) in the belief that Prime Minister’s Questions deals with the important issues facing the country, and in agreement that it is grounds for pride in Parliament, though both are still very low (45% and 17% agreement respectively (despite each being up by 5% compared to 2014)).
The EU Referendum:
As a kind of footnote to the presentation of the results it was reported that there are high levels of interest and intent to vote in the EU referendum (63% interested, 59% certain to vote), coupled with low levels of satisfaction with and knowledge of the EU (21% satisfied, net -24% feel knowledgeable). It was thus suggested that there may be too much heat and not enough light in the debate around the referendum. This suggestion appeared to be contradicted by one of the MPs on the panel, who argued that people need to feel less like the referendum is a debate over technicalities between bureaucrats and more like it matters to day-to-day life, though I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible to outline technical information about the referendum and relate it to the meaningful ways in which the outcome could impact on people’s lives. As with politics in general, the aim should be to strike a balance between being passionate and being informed, which can be a tough one to get right.
All of the above was fascinating but I felt the launch was lacking in terms of considering who is engaged with politics. Are some groups more interested than others? Do some groups report undertaking more political acts than others? These are the questions relating to political engagement that underpin my research, along with questions of why any such differences between groups exist. Fortunately, the Hansard Society had a ready-made response in the form of the following summary paragraph (in the Audit and on the website) relating to inequalities in engagement:
‘Generally, the most politically engaged in the Audit series tend to be male, older, white, higher educated, affluent, home-owning citizens. The social class gap in electoral participation continues to rise: there is now a 37 percentage point difference between the certainty to vote levels of those in social classes AB and DE, an increase of six points in 12 months. However, the gap between the social classes tends to be much smaller in relation to questions about satisfaction with politics and institutions. Younger people (aged 18-24) are also more likely to be satisfied with the politics and institutions of our political system, and have a greater sense of their own potential to influence it than are other more generally engaged groups. This is also true of BME adults, although they are much less likely to say they have actually undertaken some form of political action than white adults in the last year.’
I find the first two sentences in the above the most striking, and I will certainly be reading the report more closely with them in mind. I also hope that when I finish my research (ideally sooner rather than later) I will be able to shed at least a sliver of light on why those discrepancies exist.
 In terms of methodology, the Audit is a time series study in its thirteenth year, and can be seen as an annual health check on the state of political engagement in the United Kingdom. The survey that all of the results are based on was fielded last December, by Ipsos MORI, to a representative sample of 1,231 British adults across Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland). The Audit should not be used at the basis for predictions, rather it is a snapshot at particular moment in time. It presents a complex and contradictory picture, which is unsurprising given people’s lukewarm attitudes towards Parliament (and politics).