By Finbarr Livesey
While three quarters of voters want to be consulted before key votes, only one third believe it is their responsibility to find out about the issues and influence their MP. British voters want to control their representatives but don't want to make the effort to engage with them.
Possibly even worse is that half the voting public don't consider the candidate to be important when making their voting decision. Our members of Parliament are becoming ciphers to us, there purely as a conduit rather than as a decision maker.
These are the results of a new survey of over 2,000 adults carried out by the Centre for Industry and Government at Cambridge and YouGov@Cambridge. At a key moment in the evolution of the UK's democratic system, with the media under severe scrutiny, MPs stepping carefully after the expenses scandal, and an electorate trying to work out which way is up with the Coalition, voters appear to disagree with the system of democracy they have. In a system based on representation, where voters get to exercise their control every four to five years at the ballot box, there is an underlying sentiment of direct democracy.
In the minds of voters it is like they want their parliamentarians to be empty of mind but with the infinite powers of Santa Claus. Somehow they are supposed to be able to drop by the whole of their constituency in a single night and have a chat about how they should vote with each and every one of us.
This could explain why being a member of Parliament is such a difficult job. Essentially your constituents don't want to know you but will express their frustration and anger if you have not actively sought out their views.
This sense of a sofa bound electorate waiting for the politicians and issues to come to them, as if it were an episode of X-Factor or Strictly Come Voting, is reinforced by the lack of engagement with online tools and traditional means of communication. Over 70% of voters would never follow a Twitter feed or look at an online video for their MP. Over 60% would never read an MP's blog or their Facebook page, or even attend one of their clinics. This even though three quarters of us say it is the MP's responsibility to provide as many ways as possible for information to be made available to voters.
Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge elected in 2010, has first hand experience of how online tools are being used. "Postcards and bulk emails pour in in their hundreds. But it is difficult to judge the depth of feeling of people who have chosen simply to add their name to someone else's words." For Huppert the important thing is whether it is a personal communication. "I set much more store by letters and emails I receive from people who have put their thoughts into their own words."
The findings from this survey are broadly in line with those of the Hansard Society's audit of political engagement. As the director of that programme, Dr. Ruth Fox, noted "Public attitudes are highly complex, often contradictory and rarely uniform." This complexity creates significant problems if MPs wanted to be more open to taking the temperature of their constituency in a more direct fashion. Dr. Fox sums up the problem "As this latest research shows voters aren't willing to actively engage in ways that would help their MP determine what their views are."
This tension between control and disengagement is borne out by what influences our vote. According to this survey national issues are the strongest influence, important for 74% of voters as they decide on who to vote for. This is closely followed by the party manifestos (69%) and local issues (65%). The personalities come next, with the leader of the party voter's choose important for 58% of respondents, while the candidate themselves is only important for 52%.
A little surprisingly, the media appear to play a very small role in the voting decision of the great British public. Less than one in five of respondents said that how the election was reported, either the issues or the election itself, influenced their vote. Whether this is how we wish to view ourselves or the reality, perhaps this gives a lie to the level of influence for certain red tops in the results of recent elections.
The 2010 UK election and the referendum on the alternative voting system highlighted a long standing problem with many democracies. Do we all agree on what we are doing when we vote? Do we think we are sending a representative to parliament who we trust to make the best decision they can or a delegate who will faithfully represent our views? For Julian Huppert there may be a mismatch between the system and our expectations. "One of the main problems with our democracy is that most people in most constituencies are represented by someone they disagree with. What we really need is a better voting system so that people can go to the MP best suited to represent them."
Do we want MPs to be servants of the people, their manifesto or their conscience? Right now it looks like we want control without the need to engage. According to Dr. Fox "Ultimately the public are happier as critical spectators rather than participants. But that's not a route to a healthy democracy in the long-term." Perhaps we the people are the greatest weakness in the democratic system.
Finbarr Livesey is Director of the Centre for Industry and Government at the Institute for Manufacturing, Cambridge University, and a subject-advisor to YouGov@Cambridge.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov@Cambridge. Total sample size was 2,065 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 7th - 8th June 2011. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
Full details of the survey, including a summary of the data, can be accessed online here
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