We welcome YouGov’s research for the Fabian Society into the culture of politics as seen by voters and non-voters. It gives fresh insights into the widening gulf, highlighted in the most recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement, between modern citizens’ expectations of representative democracy and their actual perceptions and experiences.
The political class has never been universally admired. It is not surprising that this research finds more people would chat to an actor or pop star than a member of parliament. Nearly half (49 per cent) however would want to speak to a politician sat next to them on a plane – if only to berate them on the state of the economy!
More seriously, this research tells us that politics is not connecting for many people. The results suggest that voters and non-voters alike feel unrepresented; that politics is not populated by ‘people like us’. 31 per cent of respondents agreed with the criticism that “Politics is a game played by an out of touch elite who live on another planet – politics isn’t made up of people like me”; 34 per cent of respondents felt that “Most MPs have too little experience of the real world before they go into politics”; 19 per cent of respondents thought that if political parties “looked more like the society they are supposed to represent: more working class, more women, more ethnic minority MPs” they might seem more relevant to their lives. Parliament cannot be a mirror image of our society but these findings suggest a desire to make it more reflective of Britain today.
This disconnect is also apparent in the type of politics on offer. The survey reveals a dislike of adversarial Westminster politics with 44 per cent of respondents agreeing that political parties would seem more relevant if they “stopped arguing for a minute and tried to work together to solve the big issues of the day”. 36 per cent agreed with the criticism that “politicians are more interested in scoring points than doing the right thing” and 29 per cent that “politicians spend too much time arguing with each other and too little saying where they agree”. The public will of course judge formal governing coalitions on their merits. Recent polls show declining support for coalitions, generally attributed to the waning popularity of the current UK coalition government. But the findings of this survey do suggest that people will reward those politicians and parties who can be more open to voicing agreements or to collaborating across party lines on selected issues.
An overriding sense that politics is alien emerges from the survey. 18 per cent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote if “politicians seemed more like human beings” and 18 per cent felt that political parties would seem more relevant if they “used less jargon and spoke in the same language as everybody else”.
Yet this is accompanied by support for what MPs do, even if views diverge on what that should be. The positive statement receiving the most support (24 per cent) claimed that “Most politicians do their best to help constituents who have problems”. Partisan positioning at Westminster received little admiration with respondents claiming they would be more likely to vote for a party next time round “if [they] spent less time trying to win my vote and more time doing good work in the neighbourhood”..
Whilst the model of representative democracy on offer is not matching expectations, some findings give cause for cautious optimism. Asked why they didn’t vote, 18 per cent of respondents simply said they didn’t know. This rises to 42 per cent amongst non-voters aged 18-24. For this age group it seems they have not yet been given a reason to vote but likewise are not yet convinced of reasons not to.
People want their politicians to be more like them and to focus on good local deeds; and for parties to be distinct yet collaborative. They like the idea of more direct democracy but nearly half agree the current system isn’t perfect but ‘is the best way we have of collectively tackling the big issues of the day and making the big choices that face society.’ This supports existing research which shows widespread support for the model of representative democracy accompanied by a desire for it to work better in practice. These are not straightforward challenges. They demand a sophisticated response from politicians to a population that does not fit the neat core/swing voter categories the parties have relied on for so long.
In the meantime, MPs could heed the strongest criticism of the poll, their failure on radio or television to give ‘straight answers to straight questions’. This could reflect a more media trained, professionalised political class. Politicians are never going to be our first choice of flight companion. But straight talking could get people tuning back in.