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We must tackle despondency with democratic renewal

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An LGC commentary on the results of the Hansard Society’s survey of political engagement 

Public opinion on how well the UK’s system of government is working has reached a new low and feelings of powerlessness and disengagement are intensifying. So finds the Hansard Society’s 16th annual survey of political engagement.

Based on a representative sample of just under 1,200 adults from across the UK, the survey paints a bleak picture of public confidence in our political institutions and faith in the individuals who lead them. The results offer yet more evidence, if it were needed following the events of the past three years, of the country’s desperate need for a process of democratic renewal.

Only a quarter of respondents thought they had any influence over local decision making with 42% feeling they had no influence whatsoever. The fact that people felt even more disempowered at a national level – with just 6% feeling they could have any kind of influence and 47% feeling they had none at all – is cold comfort.

Unsurprisingly in this context, the appetite for getting involved in politics, whether at a national or local level, is at its lowest since the Hansard Society began asking this question in 2009. The number saying they would like to get involved with local decision making declined by seven percentage points, from 48% to 41%, while the proportion saying they did not want to be involved at all hit a high of 32%, up from 22% last year.

The fact that respondents were even more unwilling to get involved with national decision making – 35% would not countenance it – again provides little relief. The proportion of people saying they would not be prepared to get involved in politics in anyway – such as by voting in an election, contacting their councillor or taking part in a public consultation – was also at an all time high, up 10 percentage points on 2018 at 22%.

Interestingly, when broken down by how respondents voted in the EU referendum ‘remainers’ were more likely to say they would definitely vote if an election was held tomorrow than those who voted to leave (80% versus 64%) and to consider themselves knowledgeable about politics (68% compared to 42%). However, the gap narrowed when it came to questions on the current system of government with only 27% of remainers and 22% of leave voters professing themselves satisfied. On this at least, the two sides could find common ground.

At a local or national level the two-party system contributes to the sense that nothing ever changes and that individual votes don’t often make little difference. In their preview of next month’s local elections, in which more than 8,000 seats are being contested, election psephologists Collin Rallings and Michael Thrasher predict there will be no real challenge to the dominance of the main two parties despite the current turmoil.

The situation is the same nationally. If Labour and the Conservatives can apparently implode in slow motion in front of the nation’s eyes on the evening news and yet still be secure in their grip on power, what incentive is there for them to make compromises or concessions?

The current despondency at the political system produced some worrying results in the latest survey. More than half of respondents (54%) thought Britain needed a strong leader willing to break the rules and 42% said the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament. And while respondents had more confidence that councils would act in the public interest than MPs (44% compared to 34%) or the government (33%), the military and the armed forces were way out in front on 74%.

If these impulses were realised it would be far from the first time a stricken and conflicted nation had turned to a strong – possibly military – leader who disregards established institutions to offer easy answers. The harder sell to a disillusioned public, but much more effective option for long-term peace and prosperity, would be a root and branch review of how we elect politicians in this country.

Whether that be abolishing council elections by thirds to give real opportunity for change, some form of proportional representation at national and/or local level or increased use of citizens’ assemblies in decision making it is clear something has to change. That’s just about the only thing everyone seems to be able to agree on.

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor

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