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Do we care about party politics?

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Mark Easton | 16:23 UK time, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Bag of lettuceDemocracy? Lettuce? Instant ready-meals? What do we really care about? According to today's British Attitudes Survey, a fifth of the British population is "very concerned" about the gases in bags of salad leaves. A third of people are worried about eating food cooked in a microwave.

Elsewhere in the report it is revealed that almost half the population appears indifferent about voting in a general election.

Having looked more closely at the survey data on people's political allegiances, one can see how party tribalism is fast disappearing from the election landscape.

The BSA survey asks people this question: "Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?"

This is how the respondents answered in the run-up to elections since 1987:

table showing the proportion of people who said they support one party

The pollsters identify a group who they describe as having "no party identification". These are people who feel no affinity to any political party and, asked which one they'd vote for in an election, replied "none of them".

Table showing the proportion of people who don't support a party

The survey also attempts to test just how deep party loyalties run among those who say they still support or lean towards one particular party:

Table showing the strength of people's support for one party

So, a quarter of the population don't like any of the parties - and of the remainder, almost eight out of 10 are not that bothered. Put another way, only one in six of the electorate feels strongly about any political party.

No wonder voting rates have fallen so dramatically. A decade ago, two-thirds of those surveyed said they thought it was everyone's duty to vote. Now the figure has fallen to 56%.

Is this because Britons are too self-absorbed to understand the importance of participating in a democratic election? Have they forgotten the sacrifices their forefathers made to win that right? Or is it a rational response when faced with contenders for government whose policies and rhetoric look and sound to them almost identical?

British politics is no longer the tribal battleground it once was. Election campaigns have become so sophisticated that parties crowd together on the middle-ground and attempt to neutralise any suggestion they harbour dangerous, radical ideas.

Reading their manifestos may, for many, amount to a spot-the-difference competition. There will be variation, of course. But to many voters the candidates will appear to be arguing about arcane distinctions of emphasis - tweaks to a government machine that will continue to run pretty much as it has done for decades.

One might argue that it is the "vision" that matters rather than getting obsessed about individual policy differences. In 2002 this is how Labour leader Tony Blair summed up his "vision" for the kind of government he wanted to lead:

"Out goes the Big State. In comes the Enabling State. Out goes a culture of benefits and entitlements. In comes a partnership of rights and responsibilities."

And here is how Conservative leader David Cameron described his vision" of government last year:

"Our alternative to big government is the big society... that way, we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility."

It is hardly news to say that politics is more managerial than ideological these days. But one should not be surprised if, as a consequence, many potential voters offer a shrug and say "they are all the same". In the early 90s, just 8% of people said "it's not really worth voting". Now the figure has risen to 18%.

My guess is that, so long as the government of the day doesn't really screw up, that number will rise still further.

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