For the past fifteen years, the Hansard Society – a thinktank which promotes parliamentary democracy – has published its Audit of Political Engagement. The Audit is an attempt to measure the level of engagement of Britons in politics, through an annual survey.
This year’s has just been released – and it features some fascinating findings.
There’s some cheering news. 57% of respondents say they are interested in politics, for instance, and 52% say they are knowledgeable – and overall the report shows an uptick amongst traditionally less engaged groups such as BME respondents, more working-class respondents and women. This is to be celebrated – though it should be noted that the Hansard Society has often found that such scores tend to spike before and after general elections.
Yet the report also highlights some yawning deficits in Britain’s democracy, particularly with regards to people’s satisfaction with the political system.
67% of respondents say the political system either needs a lot of improvement or could be improved quite a lot. Only 29% say they are satisfied with the system. This is a fall from previous years.
There are divides even within this findings. In general, satisfaction with our democracy appears to fall as one gets further from London. It is 41% in London, and 37% in the South West and South East of England.
Yet the figure plummets to just 28% in the Midlands and Eastern of England, 23% in the North of England, 23% in Wales and just 14% in Scotland.
When asked about different facets of the system, the public continue to demonstrate cynicism. Only 22% believe it ensures the views of most Britons are represented, 21% believe it allows ordinary people to get involved in politics, and only 22% believe that the system allows voters a final say over Britain’s future direction.
Perhaps most damning is the finding that only 23% believe that the political system is good at delivering what is supposed to be its key strength – delivering stable government.
This is unsurprising given Britain’s political system squeezes out voices and narrows the terms of the political debate. It is also unsurprising given that the mechanics of the electoral system is failing on its own terms – unable to deliver the kind of sizeable single party majority that first past the post is supposed to deliver.
Our analysis of last year’s general election showed that under Westminster’s voting system we saw:
- Wasted votes: 68% of votes had no impact on the result – 22 million votes were wasted this election
- Tiny margins:0016% of voters choosing differently would have given the Conservatives a majority, while the election saw rise in very marginal seats: eleven seats were won by fewer than 100 votes
- A ‘hold your nose’ election: We estimate that 6.5 million people voted tactically, alongside surge in smaller parties standing aside
There were major regional divides too, with the ‘First Past the Post’ voting system exaggerating divisions in the UK – Labour secured 29% of South East vote but got just 10% of seats, while Conservatives won 34% of the North East vote but got just 9% of seats.
Meanwhile, the SNP continue to be over-represented in Scotland (as is Labour in Wales), while Northern Ireland voters are forced into two camps.
It’s no wonder voters feel distant from political institutions.
A new way of doing politics – one which is more diverse and more representative – can also be stronger, encouraging parties to work together and deliver fairer representation.
We need real democratic change in this country to put voters at the centre, and prevent a slide towards alienation.