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Ruth Fox: With disengagement, there’s no silver bullet

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The fact that nearly a third of the public (32%) say they do not want any involvement at all in local decision-making, a rise of 10 points in a year, should give local representatives pause for thought, particularly the hundreds of new councillors who are embarking on their role following the recent local elections.

This figure of 32% in the latest Audit of Political Engagement, published by the Hansard Society, was one of the starkest examples of the extent to which the public’s feelings of powerlessness and disengagement are intensifying.

While some core indicators of political engagement, including certainty to vote and interest in and knowledge of politics, remain stable at average or above-average levels for the 15-year audit series, there is increasing public discontent with politics and the system of governing. The public remain tuned in to politics, but are increasingly turned off by what they see, with consequences for local political engagement.

The 32% who say they do not want to be involved “at all” in local decision-making is much higher than the proportion who said the same when we first asked this question in 2010 (18%). At no point in the intervening years has the figure been higher than 25%, suggesting a marked deterioration in attitudes this year.

The results should be set in context. The desire for involvement in national decision-making is even worse. Just 37% say they would like to be involved in decision-making in the country as a whole (compared to 41% locally), while 35% say they don’t want to be involved at all.

In part the results are a reflection of the public’s sense of the efficacy of their involvement, that even if they do get involved, they will not have much influence on decision-making. Only a quarter of the public (25%) think they have at least some influence on local decision-making. This is average for the audit series, and has changed little since we first asked this question nine years ago. But the 42% who feel they have “no influence at all” on local decision-making is up nine points this year, and is a record score for the audit series.

Socio-economic factors (social class, education levels, housing tenure) continue to be significant drivers of disengagement. For example, those in social classes AB (the professional and high managerial occupations) are much more likely at 55% to want to be involved in decision-making locally than C2s (skilled manual workers) at 28% and DEs (unskilled manual workers and pensioners) 29%.

Similarly, those renting property from their local council are the least likely to feel influential in local decision-making (15%) compared to groups in other forms of housing tenure (owner-occupiers, 25%; those buying via a mortgage, 29%; those renting privately, 25%). Importantly, however, 35% of those renting from the local authority want to be involved in decision-making (compared, for example, to 38% of owner-occupiers).

Gaps like this, between desire for involvement and people’s sense of the likely influence they can exercise, suggest there is some potential for improvement. But how to harness that desire for involvement and make it a reality remains as distant and elusive as ever. In truth, there is no silver bullet. The audit results do not point to any one particular reform that would change the engagement picture.

But local government is arguably operating in a more receptive environment in which to improve public engagement and participation than national government. More people say they have confidence in local councils to act in the best interest of the public (44%) than say the same about national government (33%), political parties (29%) or MPs (34%). And confidence is particularly high among younger people: 54% of 18-34s say they have confidence in local government to act in the best interests of the public, compared to just 39% of those aged 55 or above.

Ruth Fox, Director, Hansard Society

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