Getting Involved: Political participation

Last week, NCVO launched Getting Involved: How people make a difference (PDF, 3.4MB). Drawing on data from a wide range of sources and full of the latest statistics, this new publication looks at who gets involved, how and where people get involved, and whether participation has changed over time.

In this blog post, we look at political participation and what lessons charity campaigners might be able to learn.

Party membership

The question of apathy used to loom large when discussing politics in the UK, but the last few years has seen something of a resurgence in political party membership, after a long period in which falling engagement with parties seemed inevitable. And all of these rises seem to have been linked with politics moving from a period of managerialism to a changing world where the questions being asked may seem more fundamental to people’s lives.

The Scottish independence referendum in 2014 sparked a huge surge in SNP membership, with the 25,000 strong membership swelling to 115,000 by the end of 2015. The following year, Jeremy Corbyn’s successful Labour leadership campaign and the subsequent leftward shift of the party also saw a major influx of members, reaching over 550,000 in 2017, up from around 200,000 in 2014, the largest membership of any political party in the UK since at least the early 1990s. Similarly, the aftermath of the EU referendum saw a significant, if less dramatic, increase in Liberal Democrat membership, up from around 60,000 in 2015 to 100,000 by the general election in 2017.

Voting

We’ve also started to see increased turnout at elections and referendums too. UK General Election turnout has actually been going up since 2001, when it dipped below 60 per cent, but the continued increase in 2017 has often been attributed to an increase in young people coming out to support Jeremy Corbyn. Polling suggests this is broadly what happened, though to a lesser extent that some initially claimed, with a big rise in 18-24 turnout being offset by more modest falls among older age groups. Young people are however still less likely to vote in elections than older groups.

Participation in political action

Political participation however goes far beyond voting and membership of political parties. 23% of people have made or signed an e-petition in the last 12 months, while 5% say they have played an active part in a campaign.

This is where charities can often play an important role in encouraging political engagement, as we set out in our written evidence to the House of Lords committee on citizenship and civic engagement (PDF, 215KB). For some, taking part in charity campaigns can help them to engage more politically across a range of areas, a point we shouldn’t forget when speaking to those who are sceptical about the role of charity campaigning.

Social class, education, ethnicity

There are still however some big disparities in who is politically engaged, particularly in relation to social class, education and ethnicity. As a starting point, white people are more likely to say they are at least ‘fairly interested’ in politics (56%) than BME people (34%), a gap which also existed to a smaller extent in relation to turnout at the 2017 General Election (64% for white people compared to 53% of BME people). When it comes to political action, those in the highest social grades and with the highest level of education were much more likely to have taken part.

This might then be something for charities to work on, looking at ways to ensure representation for those whose voice is not currently being heard.

Lessons for campaigners

Maybe one of the most important lessons for everyone in the last few years is that political trends are not irreversible. Ideas that seemed on the fringes a few years ago are now shaping our political system and the choices that politicians make.

That both means that some of the things that campaigners thought had been secured permanently now have to be defended, and that ideas that had been previously dismissed may yet find their place.

We have also seen a clear demonstration that those who are able to articulate distinctive messages which people can feel personally connected to, whether that’s in relation to the Scottish independence debate, Brexit or the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, have enjoyed success. These movements have also, at least to some extent, galvanised opposition against them. While we should celebrate increased engagement with the democratic process it’s worth considering whether the factors driving that may not be as positive, whether that is increased dissatisfaction with institutions, or perhaps greater polarisation among the public. In some areas particularly, that polarisation means charities might find it harder to mediate cross-party solutions as a result.

That doesn’t mean charities should ditch evidence-based approaches, but it should remind us that we have to think carefully about how we communicate our messages and how we show that campaigns and policy ideas fit into broader values that the public identify with.

 

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Chris Walker Chris is a Senior External Relations Officer at NCVO, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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