Voter engagement in the UK: follow up - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

2  Reasons for low levels of voter engagement

9. In our interim report we explored several reasons for the current low levels of voter engagement.[12] The main reasons we concluded were responsible for the current low levels of engagement with elections, as well as politics more broadly, were:

·  Negative views of politicians;

·  Disengagement with politics more broadly;

·  How political parties are structured;

·  The role of the media;

·  The value of voting; and

·  Where power lies in the UK.

The views expressed in response to our consultation are set out below, and we have refined our conclusions and recommendations in the light of these representations.

Negative views of politicians and politics

10. We noted in our interim report that there were broad negative stereotypes about Parliament and Government which we felt went beyond healthy cynicism and, if unaddressed, could undermine the basis of our representative democracy.[13] Several responses to our interim report highlighted dissatisfaction with politicians, political parties and the political system more broadly as a reason for low levels of engagement with elections. Points that were raised with us include:

·  There is a lack of choice available to voters, and parties are too similar;[14]

·  Politicians are not representative of the public;[15]

·  There is a lack of trust in and a poor view of politicians and political parties;[16]

·  The power of the Executive and parties is too great.[17]

These points are very much in line with the evidence we received ahead of producing our interim report.

Political parties

11. Our interim report concluded that the structure of political parties should be reconsidered with a view to better engaging with the public, and also recommended that talks around the funding of political parties be resumed, to address concerns about present arrangements.[18] These are both issues that respondents to our consultation highlighted as issues affecting how people engage with voting.[19] Both the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform and the Green Party for England and Wales welcomed our recommendation that all-party talks on party funding be resumed.[20] The evidence from the Green Party for England and Wales highlighted its "bottom up" decision-making process, the fact that candidates were chosen by local members and that elected representatives of the party were not subject to whipping.[21] Bite the Ballot has called for parties to go "back to the drawing board" to look at how their members and the public can be empowered to craft and decide policy, and also to stand for election.[22] The Government has told us that it "is now clear that reforms [to party funding] cannot go forward in this Parliament" but that it hoped that "the principles explored [in this Parliament] can inform further discussions on this topic and that the parties will then return to this issue after the General Election."[23]

12. It is disappointing that the Government has decided the issue of party funding will not be considered further until after the General Election. This is an issue which has gone unresolved for too long, and further delay is not acceptable. We look to an early resolution to this issue in the next Parliament.

The role of the media

13. Our interim report noted the essential role of the media in informing the public about political news, but raised concerns that the focus of the media on negative news stories and "the very worst of party politics" could have an adverse impact on public engagement with politics and, therefore, elections. Several responses to our consultation addressed the role of the media in relation to voter engagement and coverage of politics more broadly, with the majority raising concerns about the focus of the media on conflict and a number of submissions also addressing negative effects of "spin" and misinformation.[24] We note that Bite the Ballot recently hosted a series of online discussions between young voters and leaders of the main political parties, an initiative that allowed the public to engage with politicians away from the influence of the mainstream media.[25] Similarly, the Digital Debate consortium—an initiative comprising YouTube, the Guardian and the Telegraph—has suggested that an online leaders' debate is the "logical progression to build on the success of the 2010 television debates", stating that "the interactivity enabled by digital technology provides the opportunity for far greater engagement and participation in the democratic process", particularly for young people.[26]

The value of voting

14. Our interim report noted that several witnesses believed many people had concerns about the value of voting, particularly because of the electoral system used for general and local elections—the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. We were told that this electoral system could have a negative impact on the value of individual votes and therefore people's perception of how worthwhile voting was.[27] A large number of responses to our consultation, including the evidence we received from the Green Party for England and Wales, reinforced the evidence we received previously, highlighted the adverse impact the FPTP electoral system for parliamentary elections had on the value of voting for many electors.[28] By way of example, one respondent to our consultation stated in relation to the electoral system: "I do not want to be a disengaged voter, but the system effectively disengages me."[29]

15. A variety of voting systems are currently used for different types of election across the UK, including:

·  First Past the Post: Voters pick one candidate and the candidate with the most votes is elected (used for general elections and local elections in England and Wales).

·  Single Transferable Vote: Voters rank candidates in preference and any candidate receiving the necessary number of votes to be elected (the quota) is elected, and any surplus votes are transferred to the remaining candidates. If a candidate does not meet the quota they are eliminated and ballots cast for them are transferred according to the voter's preferences (used for electing the Northern Ireland Assembly, local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland and European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland).

·  Supplementary Vote: Voters pick a first and second candidate and the winner is the candidate that receives either 50% of first preference votes or, if no one meets this criteria, the candidate that has most votes after all but the top two candidates are eliminated and second preference votes distributed (used to elect the Mayor of London and other elected mayors).

·  Additional Member System: Voters cast two votes, one for an individual candidate—who is elected under First Past the Post—and one for a party—where representatives are elected proportionally to represent a larger area (used to elect the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the London Assembly).

·  Closed Party List: Voters pick the party they wish to support and each party gets the number of seats in proportion to the number of votes it has received in each constituency (used for elections to the European Parliament, except in Northern Ireland).[30]

16. A large number of respondents to our consultation felt that the First Past the Post electoral system disenfranchised them, and meant that for them it was not worth voting. It is hard to dispute that in safe seats, where the incumbent has a large majority and the party of the elected representative is unlikely to change at a general election, there is a reduced incentive to participate at elections. This can only have a negative impact on voter engagement. We note that a wide range of electoral systems are already in use for various elections that take place across the UK, and the supremacy of one particular electoral system should therefore not be presumed.

Where power lies

17. Our interim report considered the impact that centralisation of power in the UK had on voter engagement, and concluded that this could only have an adverse effect on how people engaged with elections, and local politics in particular. We also received several comments stating that people felt there was less reason to vote when so many decisions were perceived to have been made at EU level. Several respondents to our consultation made similar points.[31] The evidence we received from the Chairman of the Conservative Party highlighted the importance they believe these issues had for voter engagement, stating: "First and foremost, we believe that a crucial part of increasing voter engagement lies in giving powers back to communities." He stated that a lack of accountability and choice at a local level had resulted in political disenfranchisement and that the Conservatives in government had sought to redress this through devolution, localism and City Deals.[32] The Green Party for England and Wales told us that they deemed the principle of decision making at the lowest possible level to be important at all levels of society, stating that the current lack of power at local authority level is "undemocratic and a disincentive for voters at council elections."[33]

18. Debates around devolution are now particularly relevant to the question of voter engagement, as proposals for further powers to be devolved to Scotland include those relating to elections and the franchise, with discussions ongoing about the possibility of similar proposals being extended to Wales. The Smith Commission's report on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament stated: "The Scottish Parliament will have all powers in relation to elections to the Scottish Parliament and local government elections in Scotland",[34] and the Government has now published draft clauses for a Scotland Bill to give effect to this proposal.[35] The Wales Act 2014 empowers the Welsh Assembly to decide whether 16 and 17 year olds would be eligible to participate on any referendum on the commencement of income tax provisions contained in the Act.[36]


19. With respect to the reasons for current low levels of voter engagement, the conclusions and recommendations in paragraphs 15 to 40 of our interim report stand, although we have expanded above on the concerns that have been expressed about the value of voting. We hope the additional evidence we have received on these points, as set out above, will inform progress on these issues.

12   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 11-40 Back

13   Voter engagement in the UK, para 15 Back

14   Written evidence from Mary Beton [PVE 04], David Bowes [PVE 05], A K Hart [PVE 60], Mr Christopher Heyes [PVE 86], PCRC survey results Back

15   Written evidence from David Bowes [PVE 05], Nigel Siederer [PVE 65] Back

16   Written evidence from Sean Wallace [PVE 03], Roger Edward Doran [PVE 14], John Cartwright [PVE 16], Phillip Barnes [PVE 40], Jackie Terry [PVE 70], Southern Branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 89] Back

17   Written evidence from David Bowes [PVE 05], Gordon Sheppard [PVE 45], correspondence received by the Committee [Annex 2], PCRC survey results Back

18   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 21-22 Back

19   On party structures: Written evidence from Dr Christopher Pogson [PVE 27], Bite the Ballot [PVE 115]. On funding of political parties: Dr Christopher Pogson [PVE 27], Peter Davidson [PVE 66], Robert Copeland [PVE 68], the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform [PVE 106] Back

20   Written evidence from Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform [PVE 106], Green Party for England and Wales [PVE 96] Back

21   Written evidence from the Green Party for England and Wales [PVE 96] Back

22   Written evidence from Bite the Ballot [PVE 115] Back

23   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 2 Back

24   Written evidence from Mary Beton [PVE 04], Adam Bastock [PVE 18], Dr Christopher Pogson [PVE 27], Peter Davidson [PVE 66], Southern Branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 89], the Green Party for England and Wales [PVE 96] Back

25   Written evidence from Bite the Ballot [PVE 115] Back

26   Written evidence from the Digital Debate Consortium [PVE 121] Back

27   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 32-33 Back

28   Written evidence from Mary Beton [PVE 04], David Bowes [PVE 05], Angus Geddes [PVE 11], Kevin Cleary [PVE 26], Martin Warner [PVE 29], John Cross [PVE 53], Thomas G F Gray [PVE 56], Dr Vere Smyth [PVE 57], Michael Meadowcroft [PVE 63], Nigel Siederer [PVE 65], Peter Davidson [PVE 66], Ross Lloyd [PVE 67], Norman Day [PVE 71], Anthony Tuffin [PVE 73], Jim Halcrow [PVE 82], Dr James Gilmour [PVE 84], Keith Underhill [PVE 85], Mr Christopher Heyes [PVE 86], Make Votes Count in West Sussex [PVE 92], STV Action [PVE 94], the Green Party for England and Wales [PVE 96], David Green [PVE 99], PCRC survey results Back

29   Written evidence from Nigel Siederer [PVE 65] Back

30   Voting systems in the UK, Parliament Back

31   Written evidence from David Bowes [PVE 05], Isaac Ingram [PVE 07], Barry E Thomas [PVE 20], Avtar Singh [PVE 23], Phillip Barnes [PVE 40], Professor Tom McGuffog [PVE 61], Peter Davidson [PVE 66], Jim Halcrow [PVE 82], PCRC survey results Back

32   Written evidence from Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, Chairman of the Conservative Party [PVE 116] Back

33   Written evidence from the Green Party for England and Wales [PVE 96] Back

34   Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, The Smith Commission, 27 November 2014 Back

35   Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, Cm 8990, HM Government, January 2015 Back

36   Wales Act 2014, Schedule 1 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 5 February 2015