Engagement in formal politics

Voter turnout at general elections has declined over the last 50 years. Although turnout has risen over the last decade, turnout at the 2010 general election was still below 1997 levels. Affiliation with broad political movements has also declined as shown by falling membership of political parties. Falling engagement in formal politics is partly due to a public peception that MPs and the broader political system are having a diminishing impact on people's lives and dissatifaction with what happens in Westminster. It may also be a reaction to the many barriers and challenges to participation, ranging from the fact that participation is local but much power is increasingly held globally, to diminishing spaces for deliberation. As people lose belief in the power of the system to get things done, and as identities become more complex (see individualism) and less defined by class, they look outside the political arena for other ways to make change happen (see rise of single issues).

What are the implications?

  • As political parties are weakened, single issue politics and campaigns have become more powerful.
  • Politics has an opportunity to recapture people's attention by using similar engagement principles to these new change makers.
  • Attempts from governments and political parties to increase the engagement of the public in decision-making in order to reconnect people with politics by promoting participative democracy and citizen engagement.
  • A greater focus from the government and political parties in involving young people early in political processes e.g. the youth parliament and lowering the voting age.
  • Constitutional reform may become a greater priority as a way of restoring public confidence and engagement in politics.
  • As the mandate of elected politicians weakens, the power of the media to influence policy development is growing.
  • Growing civic unrest as the public turn away from involvement in formal politics to get their voices heard.

Moving forward

Falling engagement in formal politics has been shadowed by an increase in engagement in single-issue politics. This has opened up many opportunities for VCOs to influence decision-makers that were not available when political parties were more powerful.

Take a look at the single issues driver to explore some of the risks, opportunities and potential actions you could take.

As people disenchanted with formal politics seek new ways to make change happen, VCOs have an opportunity to capture their latent attention.

  • Do you have campaigns which offer quick wins or moreover, campaigns which let you dripfeed a sense of achievement to maintain people's interest and support?
  • Do you have a range of ways for people to support your cause so that people can find a way in which has a low barrier to entry for their lifestyle?

As the government seeks ways to engage young people in politics, VCOs have an opportunity to develop, demonstrate and disseminate best practice and reap the corresponding rewards in terms of their own supporter base and interest from Whitehall.

  • Do you have campaigns which you could engage young people in?
  • Do you know how to meaningfully engage young people in campaigns?

Technology and our online behaviour has a powerful role to play in single-issue campaigns.

  • To what extent does your organisation currently market its campaigns using the internet?
  • Can your organisation reach new audiences and harness the power of the public using the internet?
  • Can you tap into the expertise of your users to build new knowledge communities, and host and moderate online peer-to-peer services?

As engagement in formal politics falls, individuals are looking to VCOs and other civil society organisations as a conduit for their views and a way to express their political identities. 

  • Can your organisation mobilise the public to campaign for change?

Want to know more?

Audit of political engagement 7

Published by: Hansard Society – an independent body set up by Parliament to ensure public confidence in the democratic system.

Date: 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? A detailed statistical analysis of the degree to which political attitudes and behaviour change annually.

How useful is this? The audit presents the findings from public opinion polling on a range of political engagement indicators, updating trends published annually since 2004, providing a comprehensive picture of participation and interest in politics The Audit considers six core indicators of political engagement: Knowledge and interest; action and participation; and the efficacy of getting involved and satisfaction with the system. It also examines the public's reported levels of discussion of politics, charitable and political donation, and contacting of elected representatives. This years analysis has a focus on political participation and citizenship.

Other comments:  The weblink contains links to previous years audits; each of which focus on a different issue related to political engagement. The 2009 edition focuses on political participation and citizenship, the 2008 edition focuses on the constitution.

General election turnout since 1945

Published by: UKPolitical Info

Date: 2009

Format: Web

What is it? Charts and data showing voter turnout for each General Election from 1945–2005.

How useful is this? This website provides good clear charts and data split by regions for the past 66 years. Voter turnout data is also available for individual constituencies at the 2005, 2001, 1997 general elections, and for Westminster by-elections and European parliament elections.

Power to the people. The report of Power: an independent inquiry into Britain's democracy

Published by: The Power Commission – an independent body established and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Date: 2006

Format: Full document PDF (1.6MB)

What is it? A detailed analysis of disengagement in formal politics in the UK, with proposals and recommendations to increase and deepen political participation.

How useful is this? Chapter 1 contrasts engagement in community work with the decline in involvement in formal politics to dispel ‘the myth of apathy’. Chapter 2 challenges other popular reasons for disengagement whilst Chapter 3 offers alternative reasons. The rise of new citizens and the appropriateness of the current political system are discussed in Chapter 4. The remainder of the enquiry suggests ways to increase political participation by giving more direct influence.

A Citizen's Duty: Voter inequality and the case for compulsory turnout

Published by: IPPR

Date: 2006

Format: PDF

What is it? This report looks at the recent decline in voter turnout by analysing trends in different groups of society. It finds that there has been a rise in turnout inequality.

How useful is this? An interesting report tackling a relatively neglected issue. The report explores who does and does not vote before discussing reasons for voter inequality. It suggests solutions to the problems and discusses the role of compulsory voting using evidence from a range of countries.

Are the Lords listening? Creating connections between people and Parliament

Published by: Hansard

Date: 2009

Format: Web

What is it? This report from the People and Parliament Inquiry focusses on creating better connections between people and Parliament and particularly makes suggestions for outreach, media and online communication and engagement.

How useful is this? While this focusses on public engagement with parliamentary democracy, this is useful for two reasons:

  1. as a possible look at the mid-term future of public engagement
  2. as offering examples of best practice for communication and engagement
Last updated at 11:11 Thu 03/Feb/11.

Recent comments


Written as Policy Officer at NCVO

The recent DCLG White Paper Communities in Control has a real focus on how to get people engaged and active in their communities. (an NCVO briefing is also available)Whilst the government does recognise the value of communities of interest in the white paper, there is without a doubt a focus on geographically based communities. The white paper builds on the work of Sherry Arnstein and discusses a ‘ladder’ or ‘spectrum’ of opportunities for community engagement as, from individual acts of good neighbourliness through to taking on formal civic responsibility.

This raises many questions about the relationship between participative and representative democracy. NCVO, with the LGA, have recently published a collection of essays looking at the nature of this relationship. Votes and Voices. These essays bring together a wide range of views and perspectives on local democracy from across local government, the voluntary sector and academia. It is important to understand and acknowledge the value of participation and engagement in and of itself – it might not always lead to civic engagement but getting involved and participating can and does strengthen civil society. We plan to use these essays to help us to better understand the relationship between participation and representation and to inform our work in this area as we move forward.

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