Now in its 14th year, each Audit measures the ‘political pulse’ of the nation, providing a unique benchmark to gauge public opinion across Great Britain about politics and the political process. With a particular focus on MPs and Parliament the study is supported by the House of Commons.


Audit of Political Engagement 14: the 2017 report

A ‘referendum effect’ fails to materialise

Graphic of EU flag on wall missing a star

A ‘referendum effect’ fails to materialise

There has been no positive ‘referendum effect’ on public attitudes after the June 2016 EU vote, of the kind witnessed after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. On many of the key indicators of political engagement, public attitudes have either remained stable or have fallen back to pre-general election levels, after the post-election boost we observed in last year’s results.

Claimed interest in (53%) and knowledge (49%) of politics have declined (by four and six percentage points respectively) compared to last year. Satisfaction with the system of governing Britain has barely changed and remains low at 31%.

The proportion of people feeling they have influence over national decision-making has risen by a statistically insignificant 3 points, to just 16%. Given the referendum result, one might have expected those who voted ‘leave’ to feel quite influential in national decision-making. In fact, only 16% do so, in line with the national average. Despite being on the losing side, marginally more ‘remain’ voters (20%) claim to feel influential.

There is almost no change in the proportion of people who think that if people like themselves get involved in politics they can change the way the country is run (32%). ‘Remainers’ (40%) are more likely than ‘leavers’ (30%) to feel that their involvement in politics can make a difference.

Changes in political behaviour?

Graphic of an e-petition

Changes in political behaviour?

Although the public’s attitudes are proving hard to shift, there are some positive signs of change in political behaviour. After the high turnout in the EU referendum, people’s certainty to vote remains at a high watermark.

As last year, 59% say they are ‘absolutely certain to vote’ – the highest level recorded in the 14-year life of this Audit study – and a further 16% say they are ‘likely to vote’. However, the post-2015 election increase in the number of people claiming to be a strong supporter of a political party has not been sustained, dropping by 10 points to 31%. This is on a par with what we have seen in previous Audits, suggesting that last year’s peak was linked to the post-general election boom in engagement.

There are signs of some improvements in public engagement with Parliament. Just over half the public say they have engaged with Parliament in some way in the previous 12 months – a 10-point increase on last year. The proportion of the public saying they have signed an e-petition is up from 15% to 22%, and 40% say they would be prepared to do so in future if they felt strongly about an issue. The number of people who report watching or listening to a parliamentary debate or committee meeting has also increased from 31% to 39%.

Perceptions of Parliament

Parliament graphic

Perceptions of Parliament

The public clearly value Parliament, with a substantial majority (73%) believing it is essential to democracy. However, overall satisfaction with the way Parliament works (30%) is now six points lower than when the first Audit was published in 2004. Claimed knowledge of Parliament has declined by seven points from last year to 45%, but remains higher than at the same stage of the political cycle after the 2005 and 2010 elections. It is also 12 points higher than when the Audit started in 2004 (although the question wording was slightly different so the results are not directly comparable).

The number of people who believe that Parliament holds government to account has increased by four points, to 46%, the second-highest figure recorded in the life of the Audit. The proportion of the population thinking that Parliament debates and makes decisions about issues that matter to them (56%) and encourages public involvement in politics (28%) are essentially unchanged. In relation to its core functions, the public think Parliament could do a better job of scrutinising the use of public money, representing ordinary people’s interests, and encouraging public involvement in politics.

MPs are deemed the most effective group or institution in holding the government to account (44%), ahead of the media (34%), the courts/judiciary (30%) and the House of Lords (23%). The public thinks that representing the views of local people remains the most important way MPs should spend their time (47%), ahead of representing the UK’s national interest (35%), and holding the government to account (34%). But barely a third of the public (32%) think that debating important issues in the House of Commons is an important way for MPs to spend their time.

The EU referendum

Graphic of a ballot box

The EU referendum

Support for more referendums has declined by 15 points. But a clear majority of British people (61%) still think referendums should be used more often for determining important questions.

By nation and region across Britain, support for more referendums is now lowest in Scotland: 55% of Scots support more referendums for deciding important questions, a drop of 19 points. 74% of those who say they voted ‘leave’ support more use of referendums for determining important questions compared to just 47% of ‘remainers’.

Eighty-eight percent of UKIP supporters support the use of more referendums compared to just 42% of Lib Dems who say the same, while the views of Labour and Conservative supporters are broadly identical (59%). Of those who say they do not support a political party, 69% would like to see greater use of referendums in the future.

Just 43% claim to feel knowledgeable about the EU, a rise of just five points since last year’s study. However, this is almost twice as high as in the first Audit in 2004, when just 24% felt knowledgeable about the EU. Although ‘experts’ were widely criticised during the EU referendum campaign, they are still more trusted than many other sources. Experts were rated as the second most trusted (21%) and useful (20%) source of information, behind only TV and radio news programmes (34% trusted and 37% useful).

What do we measure?

Indicators of engagement graphic

What do we measure?

The Audit of Political Engagement is a time-series study providing an annual benchmark to measure political engagement in Great Britain, gauging public opinion about politics and the political system, and more broadly the general health of our democracy.

Each Audit report presents the findings from a public opinion survey, providing detailed commentary on a range of measures that have been chosen as key measures of political engagement. Repeating questions in successive years enables us to chronicle the public’s responses year on year and track the direction and magnitude of change since the Audit was first published in 2004, building trend data on public attitudes to key aspects of our democracy.

This 14th Audit report is based on an opinion poll conducted by Ipsos MORI between 2 December 2016 and 15 January 2017 with a representative quota sample of adults aged 18+ across Great Britain. Booster samples were included to make comparisons between England, Scotland and Wales, and between the white and BME populations, more statistically reliable. The data was then weighted to match the national population profile.

The study provides not a prediction but a snapshot of public perceptions of, and engagement with, politics at a given moment in time. Its findings go beyond the normal vicissitudes of the political and electoral cycle, offering greater depth and insight into public attitudes to politics than can be found in one-off polls and instant responses to events and news headlines.

Building blocks of engagement

In the Audit we look at core inter-locking areas that we know are vital facets, or ‘building blocks’, of political engagement. Given the multi-dimensional nature of political engagement, the indicators we have chosen are not exhaustive. But in capturing aspects of public behaviour, knowledge, opinions, attitudes and values towards politics they help us understand the drivers of political engagement and the relationships between them. Across the Audit series several ‘core’ indicator questions have been asked each year, supplemented by a range of thematic and topical questions, some of which are re-visited on two- or three-year cycles

Levels of public knowledge and interest are explored because they are known to be important factors in engagement, given the strong correlation between familiarity and favourability. The more people know about an institution, service or process, the more positive they tend to be towards it and the more willing they may be to participate and get involved.

Political engagement can be measured in terms of what people think, but also in terms of what they do. We therefore look at levels of public action and participation in the political process, capturing both formal and informal forms of engagement that require varying levels of time and commitment. The Audit study was initiated in response to the drop in turnout at the 2001 general election, so tracking the public’s propensity to vote has always been a key aspect of the study. But while public participation is the lifeblood of representative democracy, politics is about more than casting a vote every so often, so the study also looks at a repertoire of other activities through which people can express their views between elections and without relying on political parties or MPs. And we look not just at what people claim to have done in the last year but what activities they say they would be willing to do in the future if they felt strongly enough about an issue, enabling us to chart the gap between actual and potential engagement.

Building on the familiarity indicators, we look at the public’s favourability towards aspects of the political system through a series of questions in relation to their sense of efficacy and satisfaction. We explore public satisfaction with the way our system of governing Britain works and the extent to which people believe their involvement in politics would be worthwhile in bringing about change in the way the country is run.

Engagement operates at a number of levels. We therefore track the public’s appetite for both local and national involvement in decision-making, and, as a further facet of their sense of political efficacy and satisfaction, the extent to which they feel they have any influence over decision-making at each level.

We also focus on public perceptions of Parliament as the core institution of our democracy. We look at the public’s knowledge of Parliament, and their perception of its importance and relevance and its effectiveness in performing its accountability function, and in engaging with and addressing the issues that matter to them.

The relationship between elected representatives and the public is at the heart of our system of representative democracy. Power is vested in the public who turn out on election day to choose who will represent them in Parliament as their MPs, and they retain the right, next time round, to ‘kick the rascals out’ if they are dissatisfied with them. Periodically in the Audit series we therefore revisit questions about public attitudes to MPs, exploring how well the public think they fulfil their representative function.

In our democratic system, political parties are the link in the chain between the public and their representatives. There has long been concern that parties are no longer representative of the wider public and therefore cannot mobilise mass participation in the political process, leading to a widening of the gap between the people and the political elite. We therefore look regularly at the extent to which political parties command public support and among which groups of the public.

The Audit results generally dispel the notion that the public are apathetic about politics. However, citizens are generally disenchanted with the workings of the political system and have a low sense of satisfaction with it. But low levels of satisfaction with the culture and practice of politics do not seem to undermine the public’s faith in democracy overall. Nonetheless, politics remains a minority interest and most people are onlookers rather than active participants in formal political processes. And yet there is a latent desire among a significant proportion of the public to be involved in decision-making that remains untapped, particularly at the local level.

One of the clearest findings across the Audit series is the extent to which political engagement is unequal. There are important, often substantial, differences between the engagement levels of those in the highest and lowest socio-economic groups, between the youngest and oldest, and white and BME citizens across many indicators, including knowledge and interest, action and participation, and desire for involvement in politics. But in two areas – satisfaction with the system of governing, and the perceived efficacy of their own involvement – the public tend to possess a common – largely negative – view, regardless of social, economic, educational or ethnic background.

14 years of Audit findings and data

Download every Audit of Political Engagement since 2004, including their SPSS datasets and tables, covering 14 years of insight into public attitudes towards politics in Great Britain.

Audit 14 (2017)

Audit 13 (2016)

Audit 12 (2015)

Audit 11 (2014)

Audit 10 (2013)

Audit 8 (2011)

Audit 7 (2010)

Audit 6 (2009)

Audit 5 (2008)

Audit 4 (2007)

Audit 3 (2006)

Audit 2 (2005)

Audit 1 (2004)