Austerity leaves citizens raging

Will JenningsProfessor of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Southampton
June 12, 2013, 9:13 AM GMT+0

Battered by the effects of austerity citizens have not lost faith in the capacity of government to deliver but rather have become massively turned off by the short-sighted, self-serving leadership provided by politicians.

As far as the public is concerned politics is failing not because of the challenges of austerity but because of the flawed character of Britain’s political class. That judgement is widely shared but particularly strongly felt among those who form the backbone of Britain’s voters: those in their middle to later years. UKIP’s rise to prominence may be the most visible expression of anti-politics sentiment but it would appear that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most citizens think that government can make a difference and that politics is not a waste of time. This strong residual support for our democratic system, however, is drowned by a tsunami of derision for the behaviour of our political leaders.

Politicians: You are the problem

We asked respondents in a YouGov survey (1) a series of questions about the ability and willingness of politicians to deal with the problems facing Britain today. (See full results here)

Importantly, a majority of people (63% agreeing, compared to 13% disagreeing) still believe that politicians in government can make a difference to major social and economic issues. So it’s not fatalism about government that troubles most citizens; the public’s concerns are more about those who are steering the ship of state.

The most striking results from our survey concern the prevalent view that politicians are too focused on short-term headlines and are more concerned with protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society. A remarkable 80% of the public agreed with the statement that “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, with just 3% of respondents disagreeing. Views about the privileging of the rich and the powerful are similarly lopsided, with 72% of respondents agreeing that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”, and just 8% disagreeing. There is a widespread feeling that politicians and politics has lost its way, and no longer look to stand up for the public in the face of powerful special interests. In the wake of further scandals over lobbying, presided over by a government dominated by Eton and Oxbridge-educated politicians, such feelings will surely only be reinforced.

Competence, Honesty and Blame

There are also strong undercurrents of public opinion that question the competence and honesty of politicians, and their taste for finger-pointing. Some 52% of people do not believe that politicians “have the technical knowledge needed to solve the problems facing Britain today”, compared to just 20% who have faith in their competence. Such a prevailing view is highly problematic in a political context where voters are increasingly less likely to identify with parties and now are more likely to vote on the basis of evaluations of their competence in delivering on policies and managing public services. To similar effect, there is a sense of a lack of courage on the part of politicians to “tell the public the truth about the tough decisions that need to be made”, with 40% of respondents rejecting the idea that the political class are able to show leadership (and just 33% believing they can). Further, there is substantial agreement that politicians have “exaggerated the scale of the economic crisis – by blaming either the previous or the current government” with 47% agreeing with this statement and 28% disagreeing.

Differences in Opinion by Party Support and Demographics

When we drill down into the attitudes of different sectors of society, the results are even more striking. There are significant differences in terms of party support and age – but not necessarily in ways that would be expected.

While disengagement with politics is often painted as a problem of younger citizens, we find that older respondents are most negative of all about politicians. Across almost every measure, older citizens hold more negative attitudes about the capabilities and intentions of politicians. Yet belief that government can make a difference is stronger among these groups. Disappointment is, perhaps, the inevitable product of belief that politics and government can make a difference but is failing to do so.

There are party differences too. Of all the parties, UKIP supporters are most negative about politics and government across the board. A plurality of UKIP supporters (44% to 39%) agree that ‘politics is a waste of time’ – in contrast to supporters of all the other main parties, a majority of whom disagree with this statement. UKIP supporters even more predominantly believe that politics is dominated by ‘self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society’, by a remarkable margin of 85% in agreement compared to 3% disagreeing (in contrast, 53% of Conservative supporters agree with this statement and 20% disagree).

When asked to weigh up how our politics is managing austerity and economic downturn it’s not fatalism about the capacity of government or politics that comes to the fore for most citizens. What emerges is a sense of being failed by a political class that lacks the competence and strength of character to follow the right policy options and above all is too short-term, media obsessed and in cahoots with the rich and powerful to provide leadership in the public interest. Britain is weighed down by a substantial fiscal deficit but as far as the public is concerned it is also suffering from a depressing shortfall in the quality of its political class.

(1) Sample Size: 1905 GB Adults, Fieldwork 5-6th June, 2013. The survey was funded by the University of Southampton’s Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance.