Little interest in Big Society

Most people in Britain are unwilling to get involved in their community despite wanting to engage more with local issues, research suggests. Only one in ten definitely intended to do voluntary work in the next two years, Hansard Society’s post-election poll of 1,200 people found. While interest in politics was up, civic participation levels – key to the Big Society – were not. It said the Big Society must avoid “political associations” to succeed. 
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David Cameron has described his flagship idea, which seeks to mobilise community-led initiatives in a range of areas, as his “mission” amid criticism that it is too vague and merely an attempt to paper over damaging cuts in public services. The Hansard Society’s findings come from its annual Audit of Political Engagement, for which nearly 1,200 people in England, Scotland and Wales were interviewed.

The organisation, which seeks to encourage public involvement in politics, asked people how their attitudes to political involvement had changed since last May’s election and what their future intentions were. It found that interest in politics and knowledge of political events had both increased since last May, with levels of interest hitting a record 58%. However, this was not matched by an equivalent increase in political engagement beyond voting.

While 69% of people said they were interested in how things worked in their local area and 51% felt getting involved could make a difference, only one in 10 said they were certain to do so in the next two years. Those most likely to put themselves forward were parents aged under 45 and from a high-income group. People were more likely to volunteer if they “felt strongly” about an issue, believed it was directly “relevant” to them and if it “affected” their street.

However, the research found that while 14% of people were already active at a community level and a further 14% were willing to become so, 35% described themselves as either “unenthusiastic” or preferring to remain as “onlookers”. A further 26% classified themselves as “apathetic” or “alienated” from the political process.

“The momentous events surrounding the election and its aftermath have left people feeling more interested in and knowledgeable about politics,” Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society’s parliament and government programme, said. “But they have not been roused to get more involved in it – the majority prefer to remain spectators. People say they are interested in being more engaged locally but, on the whole, are not willing to actually commit to activities. They are not very altruistic. It is self-interest that motivates them to action – when an issue affects them or their community in a personal way.”

While the research suggests people think volunteering can have more impact at a local than a national level, people are – in contrast – generally less aware of what is happening on their doorstep than they are about national issues and controversies. “This raises interesting questions for the development of the Big Society,” Dr Fox added. “A clear focus on the local and personal is where the Big Society has the biggest chance of succeeding. The concept needs to avoid political associations, focus on the local and personal and emphasise community rather than society.” The survey also found a further fall in satisfaction with the contribution of Parliament.

Just over one in four people were happy with what Parliament was doing – a 6% fall on the year before – while less than one in three agreed that Parliament was “working for you and me” – a decline of 8% in the past year. Polling firm Ipsos Mori conducted the interviews on behalf of the Hansard Society – which were then extrapolated on the basis of the profile of the population of Great Britain. No interviews were conducted in Northern Ireland.


ENGAGEMENT PROFILES

Onlookers: (20%) – happy with political system but no urge to get involved

Unenthusiastic: (15%) – broadly content but not very interested in more involvement

Already active: (14%) – strongly engaged and interested in doing more

Willing localists: (14%) – not actively involved but willing and likely to do so locally

Apathetic: (14%) – disengaged without being negative and not seeking any involvement

Alienated: (12%) – have strongly negative views and little wish to get involved

Exaggerators: (11%) – say they want to be more involved but may well be over-stating their intentions

Source: Ipsos Mori interviews for the Hansard Society between 3 and 9 December 2010

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