The Engagement Gap
What it is, how it distorts our politics and how we might fix it
If 80% of life is showing up, that fraction is surely higher in politics.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the time politicians are not sifting through polling data or focus group write-ups when judging the politics of the possible on X or Y issue. Often it’s a sniff in the wind, one conditioned by cues – including what they see and hear from voters.
This is why it matters who participates in the day-to-day of what we ostentatiously call ‘national debate’.
Those who do so have probably always been a bit unusual. One problem, though, is that they are looking less and less like the country at large as time goes on.
The Hansard Society’s regular ‘Engagement Audit’ captures this well. It contains data on what civic and political actions the British public have taken each year, up to 2019 at least. It allows us to see who reports taking an action, outside of election time, that a politician or elite may plausibly notice: signing a petition, contacting the media, writing to an MP, attending local meetings, sharing opinions on social media, and so on.
Stitching this data together, we can see that:
A university graduate is now twice as likely to take a political action than a non-graduate – a gap that grew from 2014 to 2019. Voters in the AB social grade are more than twice as likely as DE voters.
Supporters of political parties make up about 36% of the country, but account for 51% of those who take political actions - up from 39% in 2014.
Those who describe themselves as ‘very interested’ in politics make up 19% of the population, but now account for 48% of those who contact MPs, 68% of those who contact the media, 55% of those who express a political opinion on social media, and 68% of those who take part in campaigns.
The size of these groups in the population increased slightly, though not enough to account for their increased share of voice.
All of which bears out what feels true: the ‘theatre’ of day to day public opinion in Britain is dominated by the highly engaged, the highly educated and the partisan – probably more than ever. We are used to hearing that ‘Twitter is not Britain’, but other forums for participation don’t fare much better.
Why and how is this a problem?
You could write a PhD on the trend here – post-Brexit polarisation has likely made it worse – but I’m more interested in its effects.
All participation in politics is good – it’s certainly better than the alternative. But when you get disparities along these lines, it distorts things. It is not just that it’s undemocratic; it can actively lead to bad policy outcomes.
The reason is simple: the opinions of the highly engaged, in particular, differ to the broad mass. Not just in content but form.
It’s not just that graduates have different views to the non-graduates. It’s that, according to research, ‘political hobbyists’ or partisans who pay a lot of attention to politics are much more likely to have ideologically sorted opinions. That is, their position on one issue tends to perfectly predict their position on another, a dynamic held in place by in-group identities (the corralling of which is made easier by social media). This makes them more tribal, uncompromising and fixed in their opinions generally.
This is all fine and good, but when these people command such an outsized share of the national voice, it adds up to two main problems, I think.
i. The theatre of polarisation
The first is the perception among political and media elites that certain discussions are more polarised or angry than they actually are.
Take the transgender issue for instance. For all the tumult in Westminster, opinion polls on it are fairly stable. Though not a massively salient issue, there is a solid consensus there which is broadly pro-trans (on respecting people’s gender identity, GRCs, conversion therapy etc), but with certain boundaries (sport, daft ‘birthing people’ type language). Compassionate yet pragmatic.
Writing as someone sympathetic to the cause, this may be imperfect but would represent a meaningful advance - and take the sting out some of the discussion.
There’s a reason, though, that this consensus cannot be heard: nobody is voicing it.
To some extent this is due to the organisational architecture of the debate: it’s all outriders and no insiders (Stonewall vacated that space on one side; the gender critical movement seems too nascent to have a distinct organisational eco-system yet).
But it’s also because a disproportionate number participating in the daily discussion are hyper politically engaged activists with extremely strong views, who spend a lot of time annoying (and radicalising) the other side on Twitter.
As the vast majority are graduates, they also fight it out within institutions that graduates control the commanding heights of: the media, political parties, NGOs.
Thus we end up with a government somehow persuaded to think there’s votes in dropping a perfectly sensible legislative compromise, and journalists who think it’s big and clever to chase politicians around TV studios shouting about penises and cervixes.
All while the broad mass of voters look on baffled and alienated.
The same was and is true of Brexit. Once June 2016 transpired, something close to May’s deal was always the preferred outcome of voters - just not of hyper engaged partisans driving the discussion.
But there are more mundane forums, and less sexy issues, where this holds too.
The development process around new homes has long been captured by a fringe of NIMBYs with the time and inclination to turn out and voice outrage at planning committees. Invariably better off and more politically literate.
Or take on-shore wind-turbines: most people are generally pro, but these are not the people filling up the inboxes of Tory MPs.
The broad mass of opinion is missed because it is not engaged, in every sense of the word.
I’m aware that “it would be nice to hear from people who hold their views a bit less strongly” is about the meltiest opinion possible, but I do genuinely think it would help on some issues!
ii. The caricature of swing voters
The above contributes to a separate but reinforcing problem.
Many elites are aware there is a gap between the electoral importance of swing voters and their presence in the debate. The trouble is that chasm increasingly gets bridged with mythology and caricature.
This is especially the case with ‘Red Wall’ voters. You can see below, from separate Opinium data, that voters from these battleground seats are less likely to actively participate.
So in its stead we have endure all kinds of insane SW1 takes about how, outside of the M25, there exists this rabble of cloth-capped, soot-faced social conservatives who hate all immigration, care deeply about free speech on campus, think environmental policy is a middle class fad and love fracking.
All kinds of things are claimed on behalf of Red Wall voters - be it by The Sun, commentators or ropey academics. A lot of which is massive exaggeration at best, self-serving bollocks at worst, but still it endures, stymying elite consensus on important issues (like climate).
The point is that all of this can only happen because the actual views and voices of Red Wall voters, median voters in general, are totally absent from the cut and thrust of political debate and issue campaigns.
What might be done about it?
Of course good politicians should be able to rise above these problems when they make or think about policy. But they are only human. We could make it easier for them.
I’m not suggesting that anyone with a university education, loyalty to a political party or an active interest in politics should be disbarred. For a start this would lead to my own Twitter account being taken away (surely the worst possible outcome).
What is needed – if suggesting it doesn’t stretch your patience too much – is to level up political participation and the voices SW1 hears.
Polling and research helps (I spend a lot of my day job using it to try and counter nonsence on climate). But it’s always going to be a poor substitute for hearing more from average voters directly.
Briefly, I’d say the following can help:
Media. At the very least, journalists could try a little harder to organise and broadcast properly structured discussions among regular voters, instead of vox-pops on the street (people who talk to a camera about the issue of the day are usually more engaged). Uniquely, as far as I can see, Times Radio do a good job of this with their monthly focus group. More in Common do well promoting their research. Elsewhere, though, these sorts of things tend to be 5 minute clips at the end of Newsnight.
Organising. It’s really hard to organise less engaged voters on issues they care about, and project their voice into Westminster. But you’d be surprised how little money gets spent trying (most goes towards mobilising existing activists, partly because it’s easy). Excellent outfits do exist to address this; The Civic Power Fund for instance. RECLAIM also do superb work with working class young people. Organisations like this deserve more support from funders.
Citizens Assemblies/Citizens Juries. Citizens Assemblies overcome the engagement gap by paying participants to attend. Even in some Labour circles, interest in them is enough to get you viewed as something of an incorrigible Lib Dem - and it’s true they have problems; they aren’t a panacea. But they are the only structured way I can think of where you can hear from average voters and not just the already engaged ones. They usually result in fairly sensible compromise as a result.
All of which may seem an uphill battle. But addressing this problem even slightly would have significant gains, in my opinion. It would not only leave our politics feeling less polarised, but the country better governed with it.