Opinion polls keep showing us that the public have a dim view of politicians and how politics is done. But we know less about what it is exactly that people dislike.
Our recent study explored these attitudes specifically towards political parties. Our findings offer food for thought for parties at national and local level who may be keen to change public views.
Like previous surveys, we found that people dislike parties almost as much as politicians. Indeed, 77% of our representative sample said they were very or fairly dissatisfied with parties. We also found that 71% wanted to see minor or major reform. So what would people like to see change?
We found that people like the idea that there should be more opportunities to get involved in parties. Especially for political discussions and issue-based campaigns, people want to see that there are easy ways for them to get involved and want to see the impact they can have.
This suggests that local parties might want to open up by hosting political discussions and making it easy for local people to engage. Such activities are likely to make people think about parties in more positive terms.
Conversely, we found little evidence that people would take up such opportunities themselves. There appears to be a disconnect between what people would like to see and what they are prepared to do. So parties seeking to boost participation might not see rewards from opening up.
When thinking about how parties currently govern, we found that people felt that parties were unreliable: they broke promises and didn’t deliver good outcomes.
Whilst many of these beliefs might be affected by national party policies, there is potential for local parties to develop a reputation for being reliable – fulfilling promises, communicating successes, and explaining failures. By communicating throughout the electoral cycle, being cautious about promises, and explaining when things don’t quite go to plan, parties may be able to bring themselves in line with public desires.
Lastly, we found a strong dislike of partisanship and the party whip. Whilst these are essential tools of party discipline, they alienate people. What people want instead are parties that are transparent, that communicate and that – whilst principled – are open to different voices.
For local parties, this may be food for thought. Local politics can be highly partisan, and inter-party disagreements turn people off.
This doesn’t suggest that parties should work together in coalition, but there is a case for parties showing that they are being inclusive to a range of voices and ideas, even those they disagree with. By conducting themselves in slightly different ways, we found that parties could more closely reflect citizens’ desires.
Local parties and politicians might often feel they face a barrage of negative views and have limited control over what shapes these views. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t appetite for change amongst the public.
The principles we identified – outlined more fully in our recent report – suggest that there are things that parties and politicians both at a local and national level can do to alter how they are viewed. It’s not just about changing their image, but also their ethos and behaviour, to help improve the crucial role they play in our politics.
Kate Dommett, senior lecturer in the public understanding of politics, and Luke Temple, teaching associate in political geography, University of Sheffield. Read What People Want to See in Parties Today here.