The state of a politically ambivalent nation

The latest poll on public attitudes to UK democracy shows a profound hunger for change, but no growth in support for particular reforms.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg
2 March 2010

Ever since the expenses scandal first hit the headlines in May last year, political commentators have been desperate for some robust evidence which might provide clues about its likely impact on voting behaviour and wider forms of political engagement. Without detailed polling data, derived from questions which have been put to the British public over a number of years, there has been little scope to measure how public opinion has changed post-expenses. In the absence of such data, we have had to speculate about the likely impact, or draw tentative conclusions from whatever scraps of evidence we could unearth.

Perhaps understandably, some reformers – sensing that the expenses scandal offered a ‘once in a generation opportunity’ for change – jumped on any fragments of supportive data they could. One-off opinion polls asking people whether they favoured specific reforms were cited as evidence of widespread desire for reform. Even the results of the combined local and European elections of June 2009, when over 50 per cent of voters stayed at home, were proffered by some as proof of a popular mood for change.  As one of us has previously argued, these claims rarely stood up to closer scrutiny; if any messages could be discerned from opinion polls and the June elections, they seemed to consist of 1 part rage to 5 parts ambivalence.

Almost a year later, as we await the General Election which may (or may not) clarify the exact make-up of the public mood, we are predictably being flooded with data which enables us to make more meaningful and informed judgements about the impact of the expenses crisis. At the end of January, the 26th British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey was published, offering scope to assess shifts in responses to a number of longstanding BSA questions about politics and society. In early March, the Hansard Society will publish their 8th annual Audit of Political Engagement, which will provide us with further insight into how MPs’ expenses have impacted upon public attitudes towards politics. Sandwiched in-between these, published in mid-February, we have had the results of the latest Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) ‘State of the Nation’ poll, which it has commissioned periodically since 1991. Evidently, longitudinal opinion polls are a bit like buses; you wait ages for one, and then three come along at once.

As was widely reported, the BSA poll  found that 18 per cent now feel ‘it’s not really worth voting’, compared to just 8 per cent in 1991, while the proportion regarding it as ‘everyone’s duty to vote’ has dropped from 68 per cent to 56 per cent over the same period. These findings have been widely seen as an indicator of likely low turnout in the 2010 General Election. The State of the Nation poll provides us with much more detailed insight into public attitudes towards the political parties and the political system more generally, yet has received virtually no media attention at all. This may be down to the funders releasing the raw data without commissioning anyone to undertake a detailed analysis of the 164 pages of statistical tables produced by ICM.

Yet, if print and broadcast media journalists have found it hard to identify the obvious ‘headlines’ in the ‘State of the Nation’ poll, the data does appear to tell a very clear story, particularly to anyone with a knowledge of the previous JRRT-funded polls. That story is as follows: the expenses crisis has, on average, made the public more indifferent to politics than they were earlier in the decade and prompted no discernable increase in support for constitutional reform. Perhaps the media are doing us reformers a favour; this is not the narrative which we would usually wish to shout from the roof-tops.

Let’s start, though, by noting that the 2010 poll does underscore that the public are unhappy with our political system. The survey confirms that there has been a rise in the proportion of people who think the UK’s system of government could be improved ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’: 74 per cent feel there is a need for improvement on this scale, compared to 63 per cent in 2004 and 64 per cent in 2000. Yet, when it comes to specific reforms, the 2010 poll suggests that public attitudes have changed very little and that, if anything, most reforms have slightly less popular support now than they did six years ago.

Among all the reform proposals put to them, the proposal to introduce a written constitution is most clearly endorsed by the public, with 74 per cent support - although this represents a clear fall from the 2004 figure of 80 per cent. There is a modest increase in support for a more proportional electoral system, the reform which also came top in the Power2010 public vote, which stands at 66 per cent, up from 63 in 2004, but a flat-lining in support for a fully elected House of Lords at 27 per cent (compared to 28 in 2004).  Support for state funding of political parties has fallen from 62 to 56 per cent over the same period.

If the public have become marginally less certain about which political reforms they would endorse, they are greatly less certain about how they feel about the political parties. Comparing the 2004 and 2010 findings, it is apparent that all parties have experienced a drop in both the proportion of people who say they might vote for them and in the proportion who say they would never vote for them (the only partial exception to this pattern is in attitudes towards the SNP). Instead, respondents have shifted overwhelming to opt for a third category on the questionnaire which allows them to hedge their bets by saying neither ‘might do’ or ‘never would’.

The change here is truly dramatic. Only 4-5 per cent expressed this ‘neither’ view towards the three main parties in 2004; yet in 2010 it varied between 25 and 29 per cent. Similar patterns are evident in relation to the BNP, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and most dramatically in the case of the Greens where the proportion declaring that neither would they consider voting for them nor definitely not vote for them has risen from 3 to 34 per cent. All this is an unanticipated development in ‘voter de-alignment’ from the parties – rather than ‘floating voters’ we increasingly have  ‘indifferent voters’.

This evidence of growing ambivalence runs right through the results of the poll. The respondents were asked to say how much they like or dislike individual political parties on a 7-point scale. Measured against 2004, there is a clear fall in the proportion indicating that they ‘like’ any of the political parties - other that the Conservatives, whose ‘liking’ rating has risen from 24 per cent in 2004 to 29 per cent in 2010. So far, so predictable. Yet, the data also contains some real surprises. For one, there is no discernable increase in the extent to which the public express a dislike of individual parties. Indeed, all of the parties actually have a smaller proportion of the electorate expressing dislike towards them than they did in 2004, with the exception of Labour where ‘dislike’ is static at 42 per cent.

Again, the key shift is towards the category on the scale indicating ambivalence. For each party, with the exception of the BNP, between one-third and a half of those surveyed opted for the neutral point on the scale.  In each and every case, there is an increase compared to 2004, ranging from a 1 percentage point rise in people expressing a neutral view of the Conservatives (from 30 to 31 per cent) to a remarkable 25 percentage point increase in neutral attitudes towards Plaid Cymru (from 21 to 46 per cent).

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the 2010 poll highlights what appears to be a growing doubt in the public’s view of who should exert most influence on government policy. While 87 per cent said that ordinary voters should have power over government policy, this represents a slight decline from the 90 per cent who thought so in 2004. Similarly, fewer people now think that Parliament should have such power over policy (82 per cent, compared to 89 in 2004). The same applies to the public view of media influence (28 per cent feel that should have the power to shape government decisions, compared to 31 per cent in 2004) and corporate influence (31 per cent, down from 35 per cent in 2004). In short, the experience of political and economic crisis in 2009 appears to have left voters less certain about who the agents of change should be in our democracy.    

Overall, the 2010 ‘State of the Nation’ poll suggests that the results of the 2009 combined European and local elections may be a fair predictor of what is in store at this year’s general election. The turnout is likely to be low. The Conservative vote is likely to be up, and the Conservatives will therefore make gains – but only enough for a majority if Labour voters prove more likely to stay at home. Smaller parties may make a limited impact at the margins, though this will be highly localised and will again crucially depend on what happens to the Labour vote.  The election results will undoubtedly provide fascinating data for psephologists to analyse; but they are highly unlikely to express a clear popular desire for constitutional reform. 

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