Most citizens have not lost faith in democracy – but they are rapidly losing confidence in formal politics and politicians. What does this growing negativity mean? And how can the practice of politics be reformed? Gerry Stoker examines the evidence.

We know that Britain is not alone in seeing a large pro-portion of its citizens turned off politics and equally in Britain, as in other advanced democracies, there has been no collapse of faith in democracy per se. But the evidence indicates a persistent, stubborn and yet incrementally increasing alienation from formal politics. In the case of GB, survey results from the Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement, undertaken since 2003, are clear. In 2003, citizens were far from positive about politics, and 10 years later they are less positive still. This article will examine different ways of understanding the negativity surrounding politics and how best to respond to it with reform plans.

A Slow-burning Alienation

In 2003, some 60 per cent of citizens reported that the system of government needed significant improvement. By 2013 that figure had risen to 69 per cent. Half of the respondents in 2003 reported that they were interested in politics; by 2013, the percentage claiming interest had dropped to 42 per cent. Asked if they would vote in an immediate general election, 51 per cent were absolutely certain to vote in 2003, but that number had fallen to 41 per cent in this year’s survey. Satisfaction with the way that Parliament works stood at 36 per cent in 2003; it had fallen to 27 per cent by 2013. The sense for citizens that their involvement in politics can make a difference to how the country is run stood at 37 per cent in 2003, but by this year had slipped to 32 per cent. Citizens appear to be turned off by politics in increasing numbers. Yet the evidence suggests that people are not tuning out of politics altogether. In 2003, 43 and 33 per cent, respectively, claimed knowledge about politics in general and the UK Parliament more specifically compared to 42 per cent and 37 per cent in 2013. Many citizens do not get directly involved in politics, although more would engage if the issue was pressing or important enough. As Table 1 shows, only half of British citizens can recall engaging in 2012 in any of a wide variety of political actions. Yet in response to a question about what political actions they would undertake if an issue was important, the number of citizens willing to participate increases considerably – nearly eight in 10 say they would take action of some sort. It is difficult to argue that we have suddenly reached a crisis point, but signs of political negativity do appear to be deep-seated and cumulative.

There is no pronounced effect of the post-2008 economic slowdown; instead, the evidence suggests that – starting from a low base – the quality of political citizenship in the UK has incrementally declined further during the 21st century. The 10 iterations of the Audit of Political Engagement conducted since December 2003 show us that UK citizens are disappointed by and disengaged from politics. They are disaffected by the practitioners, practice and outcomes of politics, and are not actively engaged in the regular processes of formal politics.


A Loss of Faith in Political Leaders?

Your thoughts on how to respond to a problem are affected by your sense of what the solution might be. So if you are asked how the UK’s democracy is faring, your response will be determined not only by the evidence but also by a hunch about how well you would expect a democracy to perform. Different visions of democracy lead to diverse responses to the same evidence, and to different reform paths.The ‘protective’ perspective focuses on the working of representative democracy as a protection for individual freedom. It does not necessarily anticipate large-scale citizen participation in politics, but rather just enough engagement to grant the system legitimacy. From this perspective it is important not to overreact to evidence of anti-politics but, given the scale of concern over the issue, to devise interventions that help restore faith in politics. A protective vision depicts democracy as a mechanism for choosing and  replacing  leaders:  to be successful in practice, the protective model requires a broad social consensus to underlie its workings, and a civic culture that combines elements of activism and deference. The main cause of citizens’ disenchantment with politics from this perspective is not that citizens are excluded from taking decisions directly, but that they have lost faith in those who they trusted to make decisions. What citizens want is not necessarily more direct involvement in decision-making, but an assurance that decisions are taken on grounds of general interest and not at the behest of specialist interests. Some fear the conflict that is inherent to political decision-making; crucially, on the majority of issues, citizens have no opinion and no particular desire to make a decision; however, they are concerned about being taken for fools. Those responsible for making decisions need to be seen to do so in the public interest and not with any obvious self-interest at stake. The evidence of citizens’ relative non-engagement in political matters presented in Table 1 is less troubling from this perspective, but evidence of a general disengagement from the political system is a cause of concern.


George Osborne delivers this year’s budget. Satisfaction with how Parliament works has dropped to just 27 per cent. 


Lack of Direct Engagement?

The ‘developmental’ understanding of politics rests on the view that, for democracy to be sustainable, it needs to engage citizens on an active basis. Engagement will not only protect freedoms but lead to a higher expression of citizenship based on informed and tolerant exchange between people. The argument of the developmental perspective is that given the right opportunities, and a sense that the political system is open to influence, citizens would be willing to engage to a much greater degree. The developmental perspective seeks greater citizen participation both as a fuller expression of individual humanity and as a way of achieving better decision-making that is more effective in tackling collective problems. From this perspective the figures presented in Table 1 are a source of concern but also hope, as they show the potential for citizen involvement. The defining explanation of political alienation from a developmental perspective is that citizens have been made to feel powerless. From this perspective, the negativity that surrounds politics tends to be seen as evidence that citizens have not been provided with a rich or deep enough democratic experience and, as such, should spark a major set of interventions to support citizen empowerment.


The rhetoric of the Big Society, or citizen governance, would not impress those who take a protective view of democracy.


Different Reform Options

What would a reform programme look like from a protective democracy perspective? Holders of this perspective would be against the naïve expansion of ill-judged and half-hearted public consultation and participation schemes as a response to anti-political sentiment. The rhetoric of the Big Society or citizen governance would leave them cold. The focus would be on plans to clean up politics and measures to get people to believe that their vote counted, and the direction of reform would be about supporting a renewal of faith in a system where representation and leadership are the dominant features over active citizen engagement. The range of reform options could include something to show that:

  • MPs expenses are fully under control
  • lobbying of Parliament is done in a way that is above board and fair
  • the funding of parties does not make them beholden to special interests or even open to corruption
  • the electoral system delivered more choice through some form of proportional representation.

There might also be an emphasis from this perspective on better communication between Parliament and the electorate, and more open access to information and decision-making processes. The development perspective would lead to an agenda that would not necessarily oppose the reform ideas outlined above but would place much more emphasis on getting citizens involved in decision-making. There are a number of different versions of the empowerment argument: some place greater emphasis on individual empowerment and on liberating the individual from unnecessary state interference, while others concentrate more on greater opportunities for collective engagement in decision-making. Some favour more popular or direct forms of citizen engagement such as petitions or referendums, and others prefer forums in which citizens are encouraged to become better informed and to debate, deliberate and judge what is in the common good. Those who take a developmental perspective can point to increasing international experience of getting citizens engaged through referendums, citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting and the use of internet-based innovations. Some of the material about what is happening and how to get people back involved in politics is captured on Participedia, a website put together by a range of political scientists (


TABLE 2 Classification of political reform ideas from citizens


Which Reform Route?

The key point shared between the reform agendas is that both would require a substantial shift in the way that politics is currently practised. In that sense, both reform agendas may be stronger on ambition than achievement. As to which one to choose, one option would be to ask citizens themselves.That is precisely what we did in research work, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted by the Universities of Southampton and Sheffield with the Hansard Society. This research involved 14 focus groups in various locations around the UK between autumn 2011 and spring 2012 with a mixed range of citizens. After roughly 90 minutes’ discussion about how politics works, we asked participants to identify in writing three reform ideas for improving politics. In total there were 153 participants giving a potential 459 reform ideas. Only a few members of the focus groups did not offer three ideas, and even fewer offered ideas that were difficult to fathom. We ended up with 450 useable suggestions. We gave our focus group participants no steer as to what type of reforms they should identify that would, in their opinion, make politics better. The evidence from their responses was that 58 out of 450 could be classified as about getting politics to achieve a different outcome. The key issues mentioned were:

  • saving the NHS from reform
  • doing something about immigration
  • changing the relationship with Europe
  • limiting  the  amount  of  cuts  in  public services.


TABLE 3  Reform preferences: responses to the question ‘Which of the following changes do you think would improve the British political system the most? Please pick up to three’


In the choice between a spotlight on out-puts or process it was the latter that won hands down, with the overwhelming number of reform suggestions focusing on issues of process in terms of how politics is conducted, who should be involved, who should be more influential and who should be less influential. In short, about nine out of 10 suggestions were directed to issues of process. Yet, perhaps surprisingly from a developmental perspective, only 73 out 450 reform suggestions involved mechanisms for giving people more of a say over politics. A tentative classification of the reform ideas from focus group participants indicates that it is the reform of representative politics that is closest to the hearts of citizens (see Table 2). The top preference in reform ideas was to find ways of ensuring that those who made decisions, especially elected representatives, were open in what they did and accountable for their performance. During discussions in the focus groups there were many occasions when unfavourable comparisons were made between the accountabilities that people found themselves subject to in their own working lives and the unaccountability of elected representatives, and the basic lack of performance delivery mechanisms available to citizens to hold them in check. Another big issue was improving communication, and ensuring that fair and accessible information about decisions and why they are made is provided. A further issue was about broadening the social base and experience of people encouraged to stand as elected representatives.

Table 3 presents the reform options selected in a wider representative sample survey undertaken as part of the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2013. This shows very similar reform preferences among citizens to those identified through the focus groups.

Textbook Democracy

There remains much to explore in the ideas of citizens but the broad thrust of their reform ideas could be summed up quite neatly: representative democracy in practice needs to be more like how it is described in textbooks on democracy. Designing the mechanisms for reforms to convince citizens that bringing together of aspiration and reality is possible remains a significant challenge. But if political elites are concerned about the declining standing of the political system and their role in it, they should be prepared to listen to citizens, who have a clear sense of the direction that reform should take.


Participedia, (accessed 9 July 2013).
Hansard Society (2013) Audit of Political Engage- ment 10: The 2013 Report. London: Hansard Society.

Professor Gerry Stoker is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance at the University of Southampton and author of Why Politics Matters, which won the PSA prize for Best Politics Book 2006.