A project using surveys and a citizens’ assembly to examine public attitudes to democracy in the UK today
The UK’s democratic arrangements have been strained significantly by the processes surrounding Brexit. The proper roles of parliament, government, the courts, and the general public have all been strongly contested. At the 2019 general election, all of the major parties’ manifestos called for some kind of constitutional review. Any such review requires deep understanding of public attitudes. This ESRC-funded research project is designed to provide that.
The project is examining public attitudes relating to three dimensions of democracy:
- Models of democracy: How do citizens in the UK now conceive the core values of democracy? For example, to what extent do they believe democracy should be representative or direct? Do they prefer it to be more majoritarian or more consensual?
- The culture of democracy: How do people expect democracy to be practised, by politicians, political institutions, and their fellow citizens? What behavioural norms should any reform seek to promote?
- Institutions of democracy: What do attitudes on models and cultures imply about citizens’ preferred roles for the executive, legislature, judiciary, and general public in future UK democracy?
The project is also investigating what factors influence variation in these attitudes. Are views on democracy related, for example, to people’s age, their educational experiences, or where they live? Are they related to which party they support or their attitudes on issues such as Brexit? Do people have views about democracy as such, or are their attitudes towards democracy ‘instrumental’, being shaped by processes they think will deliver their preferred policy outcomes?
Finally, the project explores the relationship between, on the one hand, the ‘baseline’ attitudes that people have when they have not been asked specifically to think about these issues before and, on the other hand, the 'deliberated' attitudes they have after having a chance to learn more and think things through. Do people’s views change through such a process? And can ‘deliberated’ attitudes have an impact on wider public opinion?
In pursuit of these questions, the project has four phases:
- First, the project team will engage with policymakers, academics, and others to explore exactly what questions we should focus on within the broad areas outlined above.
- Second, a large-scale survey will ask a representative sample of the UK population about their views on democracy, covering all the matters just set out.
- Third, a UK-wide citizens’ assembly will explore a subset of these issues. This will build on lessons from the Constitution Unit’s earlier Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit.
- Finally, a second survey will repeat some questions from the first survey to see how stable people’s views are, and use an experimental design to test the impact of different kinds of messaging on people’s responses.
Launch seminar and podcast
The project formally began in January 2021 and is due to be completed by October 2022. The Unit hosted a launch seminar, exploring what we do and do not already know about attitudes to democracy in the UK, on 25 February. Catch up by watching the video recording on our YouTube channel, listening to the audio recording on our podcast or reading our blog post about the event.
Alan Renwick and Meg Russell joined a discussion on ideas of democracy for an episode of the 'UCL Uncovering Politics' podcast in March 2021, available here.