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Fall of Duty: Election 2015

Posted on 04 February 2015 by NatCen, Research
Tags: British Social Attitudes, general election, politics, voting

Today, exactly thirteen weeks before the general election, is National Voter Registration Day.

NatCen has been asking questions on attitudes towards voting since 1991. We know that the British public has lost trust in politicians and government over the past decades – the British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) shows that trust fell in the early 1990s and was at its lowest at the time of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. We don’t trust politicians to tell the truth when in a tight corner. We think they’re more likely to protect their party’s interests than those of the country. In addition, we have seen a general downward trend in voter turnout, from 78% in 1992 to 65% at the most recent general election – although the all-time low was in 2001, when just 59% of registered voters took to the ballots.

We thought it might be useful then to look at what voters think about voting more generally ahead of polling day on May 7th in light of all these changes.

 We have the right to vote – but is it our duty?

The chart below shows an overall decline in feelings of civic duty when it comes to voting in a general election and an overall increase in the sentiment that it’s not really worth voting.


Question: About general elections. Which of comes closest to your view … In a general election it's not really worth voting OR people should vote only if they care who wins OR it's everyone's duty to vote?

In the 31st BSA , 59% of people agreed that in a general election it was everyone’s duty to vote, a decrease of 11 points from its highest in 1994. In contrast, the number of people saying that it isn’t worth voting has doubled in the past 12 years – from 8% in 1991 to 17% in 2013. 

Are older people more likely to vote?

Just as older people are more likely to vote – almost 80% of over 65s turned up to vote at the 2010 general election compared to 44% of 18-24 year olds – they are also more likely to say that it is their civic duty to do so. In 2011 50%of 22 to 31 year olds and 70 % of people aged 72 to 81 said that it was.

But is this difference simply a factor of people's life stage, with people's sense of duty increasing as they get older, or are there generational shifts in people's views on the issue? It seems that the answer is both.

In BSA 30, we undertook a cohort analysis to find out whether young people have always been less likely to feel a sense of duty around voting, or if this is a modern phenomenon with young people today being much less likely to believe it is a civic duty compared to young people in previous decades. In the table below, we can see that the difference between the youngest and oldest groups at each time point shows a fairly consistent difference (of between 20 and 26 percentage points) in the proportions who believe it a civic duty to vote. So, while the gap between oldest and youngest is not widening, we have seen that younger people entering the electorate in 2011 have been less likely to believe in this civic duty than their predecessors 20 years ago, but no different to those a decade ago. The trajectory in terms of future levels of civic duty is currently unclear.


 Does someone's address make a difference?

 Respondents in London and the South East were more likely to say that it was everybody’s civic duty to vote in general elections, with 71%, in each of those regions agreeing with the statement.


It’s possible this could be – at least in part – due to perceived ‘London-centric’ political bias; with those people living in London and the south east more likely to vote because they believe their voice is more likely to be heard. There are though, of course, other important differences between London and the rest of Britain which all appear to affect attitudes to voting, such as income and level of education that we discuss below.

And what about qualifications?

Over the past 30 years the proportion of people going on to higher education has increased dramatically. For instance, in 1983, 7% of the people interviewed in the first BSA had a degree level qualification. In the 2012 survey, that proportion is 21%, with younger people far more likely to have a degree than older people.

Traditionally, those with higher levels of education turn out to vote in higher numbers than those with fewer qualifications: 76% of respondents with degree level qualifications or above reported voting in 2010, compared with 63% with O levels or equivalent (though we should note that 73% of those with no qualifications also reported voting).

Similarly, we found that those with higher levels of education are more likely to feel a duty to vote and are more likely to view voting as worthwhile.


What does this mean for the election?

Although there has been a clear decline in feelings of civic duty to vote, the majority of the population still agree that it is everyone’s duty to vote. This reflects the reality of voting figures for the last general election – 65% of us voted at the 2010 general election. Interestingly, we have experienced an upswing in voter numbers at the same time as experiencing a decline in feelings of voting as civic duty.

We saw at the 2010 general election and at the Scottish referendum on independence last year that closely run campaigns drive a high turnout. Polls are consistently suggesting a hung parliament. Two of the leaders’ debates will include representatives of seven political parties. With three months to go and everything still to play for, could we see a return to the level of turnout we saw in the 1980s?

The truth is that, regardless of how we feel about politicians, they only take notice of those people who vote. If we’re not happy with the direction the current government is taking the country, we need to tell them. Stand up, be heard, register to vote - and actually vote.

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