Generational Divide When ‘Doing Politics’ Vanishes on Need to Fix It

By Gerry Stoker, Mark Evans, and Max Halupka. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Fellow and Centenary Professor in the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at University of Canberra (Twitter). You can read more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


Are younger generations apathetic about politics, combining complacency with self-absorption, and so threatening the future of Australian democracy? One of the strongest findings from decades of research is that what citizens do politically in their early years tends to set the trend for their engagement with politics in the future. So, it matters that we understand how younger generations are engaging with democratic politics by comparison with older generations.

The findings of our survey work and analysis challenge negative stereotypes and give grounds for optimism. They show that within the younger generations are citizens with the enthusiasm and capacity to change Australian politics.

Younger generations are often defined as the problem. The Lowy Institute, drawing on its own survey work, concluded in a recent article that “the current generation of 18-29-or-so-year-olds … are not particularly interested in democracy”. It argued that:

… young Australians value their democracy less than their counterparts in Indonesia (an emerging democracy), India (a newer democracy than ours) and Fiji (not a democracy at all).

But are younger citizens uninterested in democracy? Are they switched off by politics more than other generations? We think not.

Why do generations matter?

The idea of a generation or cohort of people born around the same time is an important one in social inquiry. Cohorts matter because they are potential drivers of change in society.

The mix of continuity or change from previous generations is shaped by differences in education, peer group socialisation and unique historical experience. So society reproduces itself, but the result is likely to be a mix of stability and innovation as each generation’s experiences come into play.

We focus on four generations of Australian citizens: those born between 1925-45 – the Builders – reflecting their role in rebuilding Australia after the second world war; the Baby Boomers born between 1946-64 who are seen as having driven social change from the late-1960s onwards; Generation X (from 1965-79) and Generation Y (1980-94). These last two are of particular interest as they mostly came of voting age in the 21st century.

Ways of doing politics are many

Our survey work underpins the “Power of 1 Voice” exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Conducted by Ipsos, the survey was designed to capture a representative sample from each of the four Australian generations that we were interested in.

The first thing it tells us is that the great divide is not between engaged older generations and apathetic younger generations. In practice, both do politics, though with varying levels of enthusiasm. However, what is clear is that both do politics differently.

We asked how our respondents engaged with politics. We divided the answers into those that reflected more traditional forms of doing politics and those we labelled more contemporary.

Traditional forms included taking an active role in the community; joining a political party; presenting views to an elected representative; attending a demonstration; standing for office; taking an active part in a lobby or campaign; boycotting products for political or other value-based reasons; and the ubiquitous signing of a petition.

Contemporary forms tend to reflect the options available online. These included using social media; contributing to blogs; getting involved in an E-campaign; joining an online advocacy group; and engaging in crowd-sourced funding for a cause.

The results, presented here, show that different generations are doing their politics differently.

There is not a straight dichotomy between older generations doing everything traditionally and younger generations doing everything in a contemporary style. However, the overall pattern is very clear. The older generations do more through conventional forms of political engagement; the younger generations do more through contemporary forms.

In short, it is not that young people do not participate in politics. Rather, they participate differently through different channels.

Perceptions of effectiveness affect participation

So far all that Tables 1 and 2 tell us is that younger citizens are more comfortable with newer technology and so it’s no surprise they use it more. We did a bit more analysis to explore why younger citizens might do their politics differently. The answer is that they think that doing it that way is more effective.

It’s not a question of ease of access alone; there is a view that politics online achieves more among younger generations.

All generations judge traditional tools as effective to a degree, but older generations are stronger in their backing of traditional tools than younger generations. Younger citizens are more convinced by the efficacy of online tools. They are convinced that they have more impact that way.

That in turn suggests that these new online forms are not a passing fad, but likely to grow in significance if younger generations remain convinced that they can make a difference through online activism.

Thinking our way to a better politics

So far we have emphasised the differences between generations. But when it comes to thinking about how to reform the political system, there is a remarkable conformity across generations.

All generations think that contemporary politics is in trouble. A majority of all generations admire democratic politics for the stability and benefits it delivers and the opportunity it affords to hold politicians to account to ensure their performance in meeting citizens’ needs.

Equally, a majority of all generations’ fears about the practice of democracy coalesce around ideas that too much power is concentrated in the hands of big business and the media. Consequently, politicians too easily break the promises they have made.

The two most supported reform options can be seen as a response to this observation. The first is focused on the idea of giving citizens more influence and parties less. This might involve placing caps on political advertising and donations, more free votes in parliament, the opportunity to go for “none of the above” when voting, the right to recall MPs and the greater use of online plebiscites to give voters a chance to express their views directly.

The second option goes along with much of that agenda but is distinctive in its support for greater local decision-making. It is noteworthy that a majority of citizens appear to favour a mix of reforms combining mechanisms to free and open up representative politics with an opportunity for more direct intervention by citizens themselves.

What reforms would you make to the current system, by generation.
Authors, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, Author provided

Negative stereotyping of younger generations as apathetic, apolitical and disengaged is mad, bad and dangerous for the health of Australian democracy. Our evidence suggests that young Australians passionately believe in democratic values, possess strong political views and are actively engaged in contemporary forms of participation. They simply do not like the current politics on offer through traditional forms of participation.

The message to mainstream political institutions and parties is clear. A new politics is required to win the hearts and minds of young Australians to ensure that their democratic energies nurture and enhance Australian democracy. This different politics needs to be more participatory, open, local and digital.

It’s probably true to say that each generation has a tendency to bemoan the failings of the one that follows it. But, in our view, it is evident that politicians accuse younger voters of apathy to divert attention from their own behaviour. What they fail to see is that Australians see politicians as the source of the present crisis.


This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Two Polarities of Anti-Politics: why trying to be friends with both Ukip and Green supporters won’t work for the mainstream parties

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By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


There is a polarity at the heart of British politics that is triggered by anti-politics. Both Ukip and Green supporters share a deep sense of disillusionment with the political class and functioning of British democracy. In almost every other respect, though, their grievances with what is on offer from the political mainstream diverge – leading to polarities that require both Labour and the Conservatives to defend against an attack from both their left and right flanks.

The mainstream parties recognise the threat but are in much more of a bind when it comes to how to respond than they understand. First the political disenchantment at the heart of Ukip and Green support means that their voters have stopped listening to mainstream parties to some degree and second the polarity of Green and Ukip positions means that if mainstream parties try to appease one set of voters they run the risk of simply driving others away from them.

As part of our ongoing investigation into the causes and impacts of political disaffection, we have undertaken a systematic comparison of the determinants of Ukip and Green Party support, based on the British Election Study’s Continuous Monitoring Survey (2009-13) and Internet Panel Study (2014). Full details of our analyses can be found here (the Ukip analyses replicate earlier work reported here).

The results across both periods – which start well before the height of the Ukip and Green surges – are striking. Distrust of politicians is almost as big a factor for Greens as it is for Ukip supporters (it is interesting that this effect is slightly weaker for 2014 as the Greens have picked up more popular support). The odds of someone intending to vote Green or Ukip are up to two and a half times higher (and at a minimum 50% higher) if they express distrust in politicians. People who intend to vote for UKIP and the Greens are also more dissatisfied with British democracy, dislike both David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and more likely to agree that “politicians don’t care what people like me think”. Interestingly, Greens are more likely to accept the view that “it is difficult to understand government and politics”, whereas Ukippers disagree – for them politics is not as complicated as is made out. Even controlling for the demographic and attitudinal factors identified in the popular and widely accepted Ford and Goodwin thesis, political distrust and disaffection is a major driver of support for the Greens and UKIP.

The idea that Ukip or the Greens represent a threat is not news to the political parties. Labour’s big data election analyst Ian Warren long since identified the Greens as key to understanding the distinctive geography of the new British politics. And the Tories plainly see Ukip as a major concern. But the standard mainstream party response is to focus on policy red meat that both parties should throw Ukip supporters to win them back. Disaffection with politics means this strategy may not work because those voters are less trusting of politics and so less likely, anyway, to believe the policy crackdowns and inducements they are offered. But appeasing Ukip has in turn created space for the rise of the Greens – though it remains to be seen to what extent their gains in the polls translate into votes on Election Day.

Our old politics is struggling to cope with a new world of polar opposites. While they may be disaffected and share distrust in politics and politicians, the attitudes of Ukip and Green supporters differ in important ways. Ukip voters are more likely to be male, aged 55 and over, and read right-wing tabloids. Greens are more likely to be female, younger, and not tabloid readers. Ukippers want to leave the EU are worried about immigration, and tend to be of the view that “ordinary people do not get their fair share”. They also are more likely to think that equal opportunities for ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians have gone too far. Greens on the other hand are pro-EU, more likely to express positive attitudes on immigration, believe that government should be concerned about inequality, and disagree that “too many people rely on government handouts”. They also strongly disagree that environmental protection has gone too far. In contrast to Greens, Ukip supporters tend to be less supportive of redistribution or government intervention, but still care about ordinary people getting a fair deal. They may be hacked off about the economic status quo, but Ukip supporters are not necessarily natural bedfellows for Labour’s brand of redistributive social democracy.

These results show that the Left behind thesis that the demographic of Ukip supporters means they are natural Labour voters has perhaps been overplayed – the set of policy attitudes that they express would be just at home in the “new working class” identified by Ivor Crewe in Thatcher’s heyday. These people once may have voted for Labour and Tony Blair – in the guise of “Mondeo Man” – but their policy and cultural attitudes are distinctive and not social democratic in any way. By trying to placate voters’ concerns about immigration and the EU, parties may well have driven voters into the arms of the Greens – who are the polar opposite to Ukip supporters on crucial cultural and policy attitudes.

Further Greens and UKIP supporters are not “insurgents” in any normal sense of the word (they are unarmed as far as we know!). They have a clear set of ideological dispositions and policy preferences that are not being met by the political parties or within the political system as it currently stands. That those preferences are at polar opposites highlights the impossibility for both Labour and Conservatives of mollifying both sides. Their impact on rising support for the new forces in British politics simply highlights the lack of discussion about the underlying attitudinal cleavages that are giving rise to these disparate political movements and the extent to which they are reshaping the political map.

This research is funded under the ESRC research award ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ (Nick Clarke, Gerry Stoker, Will Jennings and Jonathan Moss). See further details here.

The Impact of Anti-politics on the UK General Election 2015

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By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


In a Public Policy @ Southampton briefing in Westminster today (slides here), Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker present evidence and analysis on the phenomenon of anti-politics and its likely impact on the 2015 General Election. The “anti-politics” phenomenon is complex but is reflected in negative attitudes towards mainstream politics and political parties among citizens.

A void has grown between politicians and citizens and we here present longitudinal survey evidence to support that claim. It’s fair to say politics has never been that popular among British citizens. In 1944, 36% thought politicians were mainly out to do the best for their country, in 2014 that figure had dropped to 10%.

That sense of disillusionment is impacting on the General Election in two main ways:

  1. It is driving support for UKIP. The odds of someone voting UKIP are three times higher if they express distrust in politicians. When you include political distrust in a range of models based on the popular and widely accepted Ford and Goodwin thesis, political distrust has the second biggest single effect of any variable – beaten only by wanting to leave the EU (i.e. distrust of politicians has bigger effects on likelihood to vote UKIP than demographic factors, concern about immigration and dislike for the main party leaders). In short our evidence suggests that UKIP support is more about disillusionment with politics than any great cultural gap or lost voters.
  2. It is distorting the choices open to citizens as politicians duck difficult issues given their sense of not being trusted and the marketing rules that dominate the practices of political elites. The policy menus on offer are being distorted by politicians’ perceptions of what is acceptable and unacceptable to say, and aimed at the people who are involved in formal (electoral) politics. Debates about the deficit, austerity and public spending at the core of the General Election are replete with distortions, half-truths and fail to give citizens a real sense of the choices they face.

Political disillusionment does not mean that  citizens have no faith in politics, the issue that citizens have is with the current practice of politics. Our 2013 survey evidence reveals that 63% still think that politicians in government can make a difference and 52% think that they have access to the technical know-how to do so. The problem is that the way that politics is done. Some 80% of citizens that that politicians are too short-termist and focused on chasing favourable headlines, while 72% think they are too self-seeking and beholden to rich and powerful interests.

When it comes to thinking about solutions it’s difficult to imagine that mainstream parties could lead the change but that is exactly what is required. The answer is not to move onto the territory of populist challengers but instead change the way that politics is offered and give citizens real choices. After the election we need citizens’ commissions to be set up so that cross-sections of the public can lead the reform process towards a better politics.

This research is funded under the ESRC research award ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ (Nick Clarke, Gerry Stoker, Will Jennings and Jonathan Moss). See further details here.

When will UKIP implode?

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By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


UKIP’s supporters show the classic signs of populism in their backing of the party. The dynamics of populism drive its beneficiaries in terms of voting support on a trajectory where surge is followed by slump. Predicting when the former will stop and the latter start is not possible as it depends on a complex set of contingent factors but that the implosion will occur for UKIP at some juncture is a racing certainty.

Populism is an embedded element in the culture of contemporary democracies. It is ready to emerge and be exploited because of a gap between widespread understanding of democracy and the rather the pragmatic reality of its everyday practice. The vision of democracy as rule by the people implies precisely that the wishes of the people will find expression in the policy and practices of government.  Citizens in the grip of populism tend to assume that the public has one voice and that it is theirs; since all reasonable people would agree with their commonsense views. Democracy in practice is messier as different interests compete to achieve compromise through backroom deals and special interests use their influence to get deals done on issues that matter a great deal to them. The gap between the visionary ideal of democracy and murky realities of its practice provide fertile ground for populism. The failures to achieve the people’s will is down to malevolent forces:  a corrupt political elite, their cosy media friends and the influence of powerful unaccountable forces. Only by ridding ourselves of “them” can “we”, the people of commonsense, get back “our” democracy.

UKIP supporters are populists in much of their outlook as a number of recent surveys tell us (see Table 1 below). More than other citizens they think politicians are out for themselves and beholden to powerful interests. They are happy to see themselves and the party they support as outsiders to the clubby and stitched-up world of Westminster politics; claiming a bias in the news coverage and the media against them more than others. In that sense many more UKIP supporters are prepared to view the current system of politics as a waste of time. In UKIP world they are the challengers or as UKIP expert Matthew Goodwin puts it Nigel Farage is “leading a modern peasant’s revolt against Westminster”.

Table 1: UKIP and populist attitudes

Opinion %  AgreeAll  Citizens % AgreeUKIP Voters Source
British politicians are out merely for themselves 48 74 YouGov/ Southampton University(October 2014)
Politics is a waste of time 26 44 YouGov/Southampton University

(June 2013)

Politics is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society 72 85 YouGov/Southampton University

(June 2013)

News media coverage of UKIP has been biased against them 44 77 YouGov(May 2014)
There is a political class, clubbing together, using their mates in the media and doing anything to stop the UKIP charge 54 92 YouGov(May 2014)

The populist dynamic that is driving the surge of support for UKIP, garnering the support of the disillusioned rather than the disengaged voters), is capable of and likely to eventually turn in on itself. The gap between the democratic ideal in the heads of their supporters and the messy reality of modern democratic politics remains in place and it provides a trap for UKIP to fall into. So when UKIP supporters see their political heroes backing the interests of big business, or when their elected representatives appear as craven as others and when simple solutions to complex problems cannot be delivered, disillusionment will drive down the party’s support just as it drove it up. Or when self-interested internal power struggles dominate media coverage of the party the drift in support can lead quickly on to implosion. In Australia, Pauline Hanson led her populist One Nation party to remarkable success in state level elections in Queensland and secured over 9% of the vote in the 1998 federal elections. Hanson’s demise was swift, however, and in the 2010 federal election One Nation polled less than 1% of votes. The established mainstream parties are not easy to shift; not least in part as they can occupy some of the issue and policy ground claimed by populist challengers.

Some claim that UKIP are fast becoming the Teflon party of British politics immune from media exposure of scandals affecting it because its base reflects a value or cultural rejection of liberal Britain and a sense of deep distrust of mainstream political parties and their media allies. The survey evidence backs up the scale of distrust held by UKIP supporters but our argument is that the Teflon factor should not be overplayed; distrust of one group of political actors can quickly spread to others. One time beneficiaries can become a target, ask Mr Clegg. Because UKIP is a party of populism it must live and die by its rules. Those rules predict a surge followed by a slump as scandals, exposure of political self-interest and failures of delivery take their toll. The bookmakers would be well advised to offer  considered odds on that possibility as well as the number of seats that UKIP will earn in May 2015 general election.

Political disaffection is not new, but it is rising and driving UKIP support

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By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


Some argue that the current anti-politics mood is just a contemporary manifestation of a timeless phenomenon: that people don’t much like politics or politicians. It probably true that politicians have never been greatly popular in the history of British democracy but there is now clear evidence of decline and more than that it appears that anti-politics is having a big effect on politics by driving  support for UKIP.

Good longitudinal data on public attitudes towards politics and politicians is difficult to come by. To address this, we have replicated a poll question that was first asked by Gallup in July 1944: “Do you think that British politicians are out merely for themselves, for their party, or to do their best for their country?” To mark the 70th anniversary of the original poll, and the launch of a new ESRC project that looks at popular understandings of politics between 1937 and 2014, YouGov carried out a survey for us asking precisely the same question as was asked to the British public in 1944 and 1972.

The results (see Figure 1) show that there has been a clear shift in public attitudes seeing politicians as self-serving, with some 48% of respondents now considering that they are ‘out for themselves’, a further 30% believing they are out for their party, and just 10% thinking they want to do what is right for the country. The fact that only 1 in 10 of us think politicians try to their best for the country now represents a large drop, both from the wartime poll (where 36% were willing to see politicians as trying to do their best for the country) and from the 1970s poll (where 28% felt that politicians were out to do their best for us). The data tells us that people are noticeably more negative about politics today than they were seventy years ago. Indeed, the fact that public opinion moved only slightly between 1944 and 1972 but much more negatively since then indicates that recent disenchantment with politics is an issue that is of serious consequence.

Figure 1. What Motivates Politicians? 

Figure1

It is also clear from our data that disaffection with politics and politicians is fuelling the drift of voters away from the main parties to UKIP. UKIP voters are steadfastly negative about the political class. Some 74% of them believe that politicians are out for themselves and 19% for their party, with a paltry 3% thinking they are out to do their best for their country. This view of self-serving politicians is the unifying feature of attitudes of UKIP supporters.

Arguably political disaffection unifies UKIP supporters at least as much as either opposition to the EU or concern about immigration. If we model the likelihood of voting UKIP as a function of those answering that politicians are out for ‘themselves’, as much variance is explained as typical social predictors of UKIP support (those predictors in our dataset being respondents who are male, over-54 and working class). UKIP voters are not necessarily the ‘left behind’, but are people holding unambiguously and intensely negative views of politics and politicians. UKIP supporters are also much more firm-minded on this issue, with just 4% indicating ‘don’t know’ (a much lower figure than the average of 12% for the other parties). Not only are UKIP supporters more negative, they are surer of their views. They “know” that establishment politicians are serving themselves or their parties not the country.

Another notable finding, given the conventional wisdom about anti-politics, is that younger respondents (18-24) are in fact much less likely to think politicians are out for themselves. This is despite the popular claim that young voters are unengaged. It is older voters who are more cynical about the motivations of politicians.  So the decline in citizens’ willingness to back politicians to do the right thing by their country cannot easily be explained by a generational shift to more challenging, critical or cynical voters. It has got something to do with citizens’ judgement about how politicians and politics are presented and appear to them.

In that light it is worth noting that if your party is in power you might be more willing to give its politicians the benefit of the doubt. In our results, Conservative voters are most positive, with ‘just’ 34% thinking politicians are out for themselves, while 21% think they are out for their country (more than double the average). Curiously, Lib Dem voters tend not to think politicians are out for themselves (just 26% do), but 44% think they are out to do what is best for their party. This is perhaps a function of the party being in a coalition as well as the fact that Lib Dem voters are now something of a rump. Despite much celebration of the quality of Scotland’s democratic debate over independence, respondents from Scotland are more likely to see politicians as being self-serving than any other part of the country (with London and the South being more positive than the rest of the country).

Finally let us return to the original 1944 Gallup results. Remarkably, as war continued to rage across the globe, some 35% of respondents still believed that Britain’s politicians were out for themselves, 22% for their party, and 36% for their country. A healthy scepticism appears to have been ingrained in British citizens for a long time and will never be rooted out. But with only 10% of citizens now thinking that politicians try to act in the public interest it suggests that governing in a time of real crisis would be even more difficult. And those crises are potentially upon us, whether they are forging economic recovery, dealing with global warming or funding health care for an aging population. As David Runciman argues in his historical review The Confidence Trap, democracies have muddled through crises in the past but they may be losing the capacity to do so in the future. Our survey findings should give further reason for sounding alarm bells: if no one believes in elected politicians our ability to take effective collective action on issues that matter may be diminishing or disappearing.

 

Technical note: Total sample size was 2,103 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 20th – 21st October 2014.  The survey was carried out online. Figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). Full cross-tabs of the survey can be found here.

Details of the logistic regression of UKIP vote intention comparing the effects of social predictors with political disaffection can be found here.

Why being in government will cost the Tories in 2015. So far UKIP is picking up the spoils

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By Jane Green and Will Jennings. Jane Green is Professor of Political Science at University of Manchester (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


Cross-posted at the APSA British Politics Group Blog.

It has been described as one of the most important unanswered questions in political science: why governments regularly and predictably lose popular support over their time in office. Such is the regularity of ‘costs of governing’ that it appears that governments are simply ‘passive observers’ of their diminishing support, leading to the suspicion that these trends may be almost wholly independent of the performance of a government in office.[1] The implication of costs of governing is stark: it seems to matter little what a government does in office, its decline in popular support is all but guaranteed. Here we consider the implications of costs of governing for the 2015 British general election and summarise our answer to the question of why governments experience these all-important governing costs.

The Implications of Governing Costs for 2015

The Conservatives began their period of government without a majority. What this means, of course, is that the party has to increase its popular support between 2010 and 2015 (and how that is translated into seats) to have a chance of winning a majority in 2015. David Cameron has to buck the ‘costs of governing’ trend if he is to win back support before 2015.

That isn’t looking likely. Vote intentions towards the Conservatives since June 2010 have followed the predictable pattern of governing costs that we identify in all countries for which regular polling data are available. The following two figures show (a) the decline in vote intention for the Conservatives since June 2010 (the average of all available polls for each month), and (b) the decline and curve that best fits the data for governing party support across 79 government lifecycles in 31 countries. The first figure plots vote intention for the Conservatives over the course of this parliament by month, the second plots vote intention over often much longer time periods by year.

(a) Conservative Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_CON

(b) Governing party vote intention (79 governing periods, 31 countries)

COG

The high level of support (or honeymoon) at the start of Conservative-Lib Dem government in 2010, and the loss of support thereafter, is consistent with the trend we find exhibited in the largest collection of cross-national over-time poll data it is currently possible to analyse.

UKIP are the beneficiaries

What is striking to us is that the only pattern in the last four years which doesn’t entirely fit our conventional expectations is the following. Whereas we would usually expect the major party of opposition to be the beneficiary of declining trust and support for the government, it is UKIP rather than Labour that appears to be capitalising on the costs of governing for the Conservatives (the Liberal Democrats’ support collapsed early in the parliament and has been flat lining around 10% or less since). The following figures display (c) vote intentions for Labour between June 2010 and August 2014, and (d) vote intentions to UKIP in the same period (again taking the average of all polls in both cases). We can see that although Labour received a boost to its support in the first 2-3 years of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition – a pattern we would have predicted – it has steadily lost that support since 2013. UKIP, by contrast, has witnessed a significant gain in popular support over the same period.

(c) Labour Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_LAB

(d) UKIP vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_UKIP

A reading of recent British public opinion data may be interpreted simply that Conservative voters are moving over to UKIP due to UKIP’s policy and rhetorical appeal, and latterly Labour voters too. But looking at these data in the context of cross-national and over-time trends in costs of governing suggest something more profound may be happening. The Conservative Party should have been expected to lose its support. That support could have gone to the Lib Dems, to Labour, to UKIP or to being undecided. It is a signal of the distrust in mainstream politics that the predictable costs of governing have resulted in rewards to UKIP. Labour would have been the beneficiaries under usual expectations but on the face of public opinion alone, the trends point to UKIP as the classic party of opposition. This is in a context whereby the Liberal Democrats cannot pick up those opposition party spoils. The anti-politics mood in Britain may be fundamentally shifting the winners and losers of some of the most important and conventional trends we are aware of in political science.

The Conservative Party may experience an uptick in support as we near the 2015 election. The tendency of some incumbent parties to experience an uptick can be seen in the modest U-shape curve in Figure (b) above. But any uptick to the Conservatives won’t reverse the fundamental trends that we highlight above.

Explaining Costs of Governing

Costs of governing are surprisingly poorly understood, despite their prevalence and their profound implications. The reason for this has been an absence of data on public perceptions of party and government performance. Our recent paper for the annual conference of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties specialist group of the Political Studies Association sets out new explanations for the decline in governing party support using a unique data set we have collated on subjective performance evaluations of governing parties by British, American, Canadian, Australian and German voters. This draws on over 10,000 individual survey questions asked over as many as 65 years (a measure we call ‘macro-competence’). For more information see http://www.competence-politics.co.uk.

The first explanation for costs of governing concerns the initial honeymoon period; the high from which governing costs occur. We find that the early period of a new government is characterised by blame to the government’s predecessor; an effect that lasts around one typical election cycle (of 4-5 years). This means that Gordon Brown’s government will have been blamed for the first years of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with that effect unlikely to persist into and beyond 2015.

The second explanation concerns how blame accumulates to the incumbent government. As a government continues its period in office, blame begins to stick, and the effects of negative information stick more than positive information. As governments are seen as performing badly, we show that this has a significantly greater effect on vote intention than positive changes in perceived government performance or competence. This negative information accumulates over a government’s time in office. Mistakes, policy disasters and scandals remain in the minds of voters long after politicians have moved on. In our paper we reveal that the addition of a new negative change in governing party competence, and another new negative change, each has a unique effect. The final innovative theoretical (and evidence-based) expectation is that there is a saturation point in the effect of competence evaluations. Negative competence effects begin to weaken after ‘shocks’ accumulate above a certain level, as voters make up their mind that a government cannot be trusted – and their attitudes become fixed in stone. In the case of the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, our analysis explains how information about bad performance has been weighed more heavily than information about good, and how this information accumulates until the electorate no longer has trust in the government to deliver on its objectives. This is consistent with the gradual decline in Conservative Party support displayed above between June 2010 and August 2014. It is also notable that the costs of governing have happened for the Conservatives very quickly in relation to the amount of time they have actually served in office. The early ‘omni-shambles’ and the unpopularity of austerity measures may well have contributed to this, as well as their relatively low starting point at from May 2010.

[1] Here we paraphrase the observations of Stimson (1976) in his analysis of declines in presidential approval.

Parties and Anti-Politics

Diptic

Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


How and why do political parties struggle to ‘get’ anti-politics? They all nod in speeches and policy statements in the direction of public disenchantment with politics but fail to take tackling its causes seriously. UKIP seek to exploit it, the Tories want to wish it away, Labour under Miliband claim innocence and ineptness in their defence, while the Liberal Democrats misread it and think constitutional change is the answer.

Let us admit immediately anti-politics is not easy to respond to or understand. It is now some five years since the expenses scandal broke unleashing an already building undercurrent of dissatisfaction to become a storm of contempt for the political class. Some of the confusion of the political class likely stems from the difficulty of pinpointing a single or direct cause of growing political disengagement and disenchantment. Instead, each of the political parties tends to see anti-politics in its own image, and through the lens of what it would like to believe rather than what it is. But the evidence we have suggests that from the perspective of citizens none of them has the solution to anti-politics in their grasp.

1) UKIP

In many respects, UKIP have the most straightforward relationship with anti-politics. The party has an intuitive grasp of the scale and intensity of public discontentment with the political class and the appeal of populist policies. This makes it highly effective in presenting itself as political outsiders disconnected from the Westminster bubble – and pulling off the tightrope act of appealing to right-wing Eurosceptic former Conservatives and traditional economically disadvantaged Labour supporters at the same time. It also helps them deflect criticism and media scrutiny, such as on the ill-discipline by local councillors and candidates, as snobbish and elitist bullying from the political establishment. UKIP’s empathy for anti-politics is superficial, however. While effective in channelling the sentiment of protest into votes at the ballot box, their style of politics and policy do not address the problems of political discontentment at its roots, and are likely to disappoint in the long-term. The UKIP project itself stems from a carefully media managed outsider image and populist rhetoric, dominated by the charismatic Nigel Farage, that has learned much from the spin operations of the Blair and Cameron teams. For UKIP, anti-politics is something to be exploited: they are more the symptom of anti-politics rather than offering a thick understanding or treatment for its causes.

2) Conservatives

The Conservatives hope that anti-politics will just go away when the good times return. A recent blog by Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to the Secretary of State for Education, recounts the tale of a wargame organised in Westminster during the autumn of 2010 “to consider the likely dynamics of the next five years”. His contemporaneous notes of the exercise make for interesting reading in the likely scenarios identified for anti-politics sentiment among citizens. These reveal a troubling complacency, with the ideal future scenario identified by the ‘Cameroons’ in the room (as Cummings calls them) as being simply “anti-politics dies away”;  as if this widespread sentiment was a passing fad rather than a more entrenched mood requiring serious reflection and solutions. Part of this misplaced optimism might be put down to the ‘too-clever-by-half’ tendencies of their professionalised brand of politics, as well as cultural disconnect that gives limited understanding of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people (unhelped by toxic stories that suggest a financial existence beyond the imagination of most voters; such as the recent retirement of a Conservative minister complaining his family was unable to manage on a six-figure income). This disconnect is fuelled through recruitment of a modern professional political class that looks and thinks little like its voters. The modern politician, and their army of special advisors, has been taught a number of ‘iron laws’ of politics that must be followed for electoral victory.

In some respects the teaching of politics must take some of the blame here, in its role in socialising aspiring politicians in the rational choice view of the world that individuals favour economic self-interest above all else. Subscription to aphorisms like ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has led to over-simplistic diagnoses of the problem, as well as a more general subscription to gimmick politics – giveaways to groups of target voters (a political art put as much to use by George Osborne as Gordon Brown). The recent Coastal Communities fund is one such example, with government subsidies targeted at prime UKIP territory without addressing the underlying causes of economic decline. The Conservative stance on immigration typifies the downward spiral created by strategic and presentational politics. Although a fruitful issue for hammering the Blair and Brown governments when it was in opposition, immigration is an issue that most voters will never trust the government to deliver on, but it keeps on trying. To keep ramping up the anti-migration rhetoric simply feeds anti-politics sentiment and cynicism (it is no coincidence that the only prominent figures to recently make the case for immigration are retired politicians – Tony Blair and Sir John Major – with no need to play the populist card to the tabloid audience). The Conservatives’ liking for news management is also evidenced in the short-term attention span of their responses to foreign policy issues – such as Russia and EU reform – where there is a rush to take rhetorical positions without much thought to the long-term consequences of symbolic politics. Cameron’s infamous EU veto in 2011 did nothing to undercut the rise of UKIP, and much like immigration arguably served to embolden them and feed a cynical public.

Anti-politics predate the economic crisis of the last few years and as such to imagine it will go away when the good times roll is naive.

3) Labour

Labour’s relationship with anti-politics is somewhat different. They have struggled to understand it when in government – perhaps focusing more on their own policy achievements in office than the emergence of political discontentment. Now in opposition Labour likes to pretend they are not part of it, such as Miliband’s recent speech lambasting presentational politics. “I’m not from central casting; I’m the one with bold ideas and deep thinking” is the plea from Labour’s leader. But does that get to the heart of the issue or represent a form of post-spin spin?

Labour are imprisoned by the necessities of political warfare and news management. Their response to anti-politics is muddled again because of the instinct for safe professional strategic politics that won’t scare voters off. There is good reason for this, with a media environment that is unsympathetic to the party or its leader. In many respects, Labour is the biggest puzzle of anti-politics, as this should be something it can deliver on better than anyone (and arguably should benefit the party most electorally given the demographic of the anti-politickers). However, it has struggled to offer a narrative that links anti-politics to a positive message that might offset the alienation that many voters feel due both to their experience of the democratic process and an economic existence which is increasingly precarious – with falling real wages, less secure employment, longer hours and immobility for those who can’t get on the employment or housing ladder early on in life. Labour’s failing on anti-politics is thus more about its inability to come up with imaginative and convincing solutions that address these problems.

Collectively, Labour want to get anti-politics, but have been unable to join the dots between aspects of their own modernisation project, which intentionally distanced them from the ‘left-behind’ (their traditional base, the shrinking working class part of the electorate whose experience is increasingly economically and culturally distant from the political class in Westminster), and the reason why many people feel disenfranchised from political representation. The Blairite project was hugely successful as an electoral strategy, but left many communities with few economic or political prospects – as the economic and political gravity of Britain shifted towards London under its watch (and has continued to move in that direction ever since).

4) Liberal Democrats

With the Liberal Democrats largely dazed and confused as a political force since their decision into the coalition in May 2010, anti-politics is just another problem for a party that has lost its identity and its electoral appeal. They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore. Getting involved in government at the local level was not such a negative experience but the national engagement has made it impossible for activists to present themselves on the side of the angels; they are firmly part of the political elite and have found that an uncomfortable position.

Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some. The traditional focus on constitutional reform has become outdated, as the roots of anti-politics attitudes have become better understood as not simply about the electoral system. When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.

None of the main parties get anti-politics. Perhaps some of the truths of anti-politics remain too hard for those working at the coalface of politics to hear. In certain respects this is understandable, party activists and leaders have committed their lives to participating in politics and must find it hard to empathise with those who see no benefit or virtue in politics. The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. Each false dawn risks alienating the public further. There is little sense from the evidence about anti-politics that most citizens see the solution as them becoming more active, taking more decisions, sitting on more committees or taking part in referenda. There is some push for having more of say but the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.