A passion poisoned by process?
Writing in The House Magazine, Susanna
Kalitowski interprets the latest survey of public attitudes to Parliament
Parliament is the heart of democracy in the United Kingdom. But in this age of widespread political
disenchantment, how do the British people view the nation's supreme representative
body? The Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement recently found
of people agree that a strong Parliament is good for
democracy, yet only a third are
satisfied with how the institution works at the moment.
In an effort to shed further light on the
public's complex relationship with Parliament, we commissioned ComRes to
conduct a poll examining people's attitudes towards the institution. The
results reveal strikingly low levels of knowledge about Parliament, as well as
some surprising perceptions about its role. While half of people profess to be
knowledgeable about politics, over two-thirds (68%) feel that they do not have
a good understanding of how Parliament works.
We asked people to what extent they knew
about six aspects of Parliament: the House of Commons, the House of Lords,
Prime Minister's Questions, how laws are made, debates on issues of the day and
select committee inquiries. In view of the prevailing ignorance, it is
unsurprising that the majority told us that they know either not very much or
nothing at all about all six.
People feel considerably more informed
about the House of Commons (42%) than the House of Lords (26%). In terms of Parliament's day-to-day work, the
public are most familiar with Prime Minister's Questions and how laws are made,
with 46% of people feeling knowledgeable about each - 14% more than the number
of people who say they understand Parliament as a whole!
The least understood component of
Parliament's work are select committee inquiries: 80% of people say they know
not very much or nothing at all about them. This is a shame in light of past
research which has found that people are particularly attracted to the style of
work they undertake once an explanation is given about how they operate.
Select committees are also one of the most
obvious manifestations of the distinction between Parliament and government,
which our survey found 51% of people fail to recognise.
What is more, not even half of those who claim
to understand this essential difference can correctly identify the functions of
each body. For example, even people who recognise that Parliament and
government are not the same thing are divided about who has responsibility for drafting
major legislation, with 34% saying it is government's role and 31% saying that
it is Parliament's role. Only 42% associate ‘debating and passing laws' and
‘holding ministers responsible for their actions' with Parliament rather than
Fortunately, interest in Parliament is
higher than knowledge, with 53% of the public saying they are interested in
Parliament and 47% open to the possibility of learning more about what goes on there.
As in past surveys about attitudes towards
politics, a number of demographic groups are significantly less likely to say
they are interested in and knowledgeable about Parliament: lower socio-economic
groups, people from outside the South East, young people aged 18-24 and women.
lining in our findings is that two of these disengaged groups - young people
and women - are disproportionately more likely to say that they would like to learn
more about what happens in Parliament. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said
for people from lower socio-economic groups, who are 10 percentage points less
likely to say they want to know more.
On a more
positive note, around half of the population believes that Parliament
undertakes important functions that no other body can undertake and that it is
relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
However, only 19% of agree
with the statement ‘Parliament is working for me'. Over half (52%) disagree. Similarly, only
18% believe that Parliament broadly reflects the make-up of British society, accurately
reflecting the severe under-representation of women and ethnic minority groups
at Westminster -
and highlighting the need for the upcoming
Speaker's Conference on the subject.
The poll results
suggest that Parliament is viewed by the public less as a medium for
participatory government and more as a necessary - but elite - part of non-participatory
held in high regard by at least half of the population, but many people -
particularly from lower socio-economic groups - feel disconnected from the
institution. It is clear that much more needs to be done to educate people
about how Parliament works and how they can engage with it.
Kalitowski is a research fellow on the Hansard Society's Parliament and Government
and the Public: Knowledge, Interest and Perceptions can be downloaded from the Hansard Society website.
This article originally appeared in The House Magazine on 24 November 2008.