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Political disengagement in the UK: who is disengaged?

Published Friday, February 26, 2016

This Commons Library Briefing Paper provides information about which groups in the UK are considered to be politically disengaged, and why. This paper will use the term ‘political disengagement’ to capture certain behaviours and attitudes towards the political system. It uses a range of different sources, which are referenced in the PDF.

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Young people


A table in the PDF presents data showing that while 18-24 year olds are more likely to report a low level of knowledge about politics. They do not necessarily hold more negative attitudes towards the political system overall.

Another table in the PDF presents data showing that young people have a slightly more positive view of democracy’s responsiveness to their interests than other age groups do (apart from the 60+ group), but are also more likely to report that they do not know how well the system addresses their interests.

Political activities

Research using social surveys suggests young people are more likely to think that getting involved is effective. This attitude does not translate into action: 18-24 year olds are less likely to say they have participated in political activities, or would do so if they cared strongly about an issue.

Electoral registration

Evidence suggests that young people are less likely to be on the electoral register than older people, although some variation exists between younger age groups.

A 2014 Electoral Commission study identified some differences between young people based on their level of qualification.

In England and Wales, 78.5% of 18-34 year olds educated to degree level (or equivalent) were estimated to be on the electoral register in April 2011, compared to only 63.3% of those with no qualifications.

The Electoral Commission notes that in part, lower levels of registration among young people are explained by the fact that young people move house more often, and mobility has a strong impact on registration.


Young people are also less likely to vote than older people. The IPPR’s 2013 report, Divided Democracy, notes that differences in turnout between age groups have increased over time.

Councillors, candidates, MPs

The average age of councillors, MPs and party members is over 50 years

Ethnic minorities


The Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit of Political Engagement showed that ethnic minorities were more likely to be satisfied with the democratic system in the UK than white people, but less likely to report a fair amount of knowledge about politics.

These figures (shown in the PDF) hide differences between ethnic groups. Academic research shows that Black Africans and Black Caribbeans are more likely to be interested in politics than other ethnic minorities and white people. Bangladeshis are most likely to be satisfied with democracy in Britain, while also being the least interested in politics.

Research also shows that a high proportion of first-generation migrants (born abroad) believe in the duty to vote. This rate decreases to 81% in second generation migrants (born in the UK to at least one parent born abroad).

Political activities

The Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit found that ethnic minorities were less likely than the white population to engage in political activities, or to do so if they felt strongly about an issue.

Electoral registration

Ethnic minorities are less likely to be included on the electoral register than white British people. Academics found that non-registration was much higher among ethnic minorities: 25% of the first generation and 20% of second generation ethnic minorities who were eligible to register to vote had not done so, compared to 10% of the white British population.

A table in the PDF shows evidence that there are significant differences in under-registration among ethnic groups. This phenomenon is partly explained because some groups believe (often wrongly) that they are not entitled to be registered.


Ethnic minorities were more likely to believe in the duty to vote but were less likely to actually vote. Survey data suggests 56% of people from an ethnic minority background voted in the 2015 general election, compared to 68% of white people

Councillors, candidates, MPs

In England 4% came from an ethnic minority. In Wales it was 0.8% and in Scotland the percentage of non-white councillors was similar to that of its population at 3.4%. Following the 2015 Election, 6.3% of all MPs have been categorised as from non-white backgrounds.

Housing and occupational background

Socio-economic factors have been associated with political disengagement. Research suggests that ethnic minorities are less likely to be middle class, but significant differences exist between ethnic minority groups.

Unskilled workers and the long-term unemployed

Most studies of political disengagement use the ‘social grade’ classification system that distinguishes between people on the basis of their occupation. The grades are defined in the PDF.


The Hansard Society Audit found 62% of people in the C2DE social grades felt that “our democratic system does not address the interests of myself and my family very well or at all”, compared to 53% of those in the social grades ABC1.

The Audit also found that renters are more likely to consider democracy unresponsive to their interests (63%) than homeowners (54%).

Political activities

Evidence also suggests that people from social grades DE are least likely to have participated in political activities, or to do so if they feel strongly about an issue.

Electoral registration

People from the DE social grades were less likely to be included on the 2014 electoral registers than people from other grades. People’s housing situation was found to have a significant effect, as shown in a table in the PDF. Private renters tend to move house more often and the Electoral Commission suggests mobility is an important driver of low levels of registration.


People in the DE social grades are least likely to vote: 57% were estimated to have voted at the 2015 general election, compared to 75% in the AB social grades; 69% of those in the C1 social grade; and 62% of those in the C2 social grade.

Councillors, candidates, MPs

There is little information available on the social background of councillors, candidates and MPs. However, the 2013 Census of Local Authority Councillors noted that 58.8% of councillors were educated to degree level (or equivalent), while 13% were educated to GCE A level (or equivalent) and 11.2% to GSCE level (or equivalent). 5.2% of councillors had no qualifications.

A table in the PDF gives an indication of the social grade MPs were from before entering Parliament following the 2015 General Election.



Polling evidence suggests women are less likely to be satisfied with the political system than men. When asked “how well do you think democracy in Britain as a whole addresses the interests of people like you”, men and women gave similar answers.

However, men were more likely than women to answer “not well at all” (19% of men, 12% of women), while women were more likely to answer “don’t know” (6% of men, 13% of women).

Political activities

The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement shows that women were also less likely than men to have engaged in political activities, and to say they would do so if they felt strongly about an issue.

Electoral registration

The Electoral Commission reported that women were slightly more likely to be on the February/March 2014 electoral registers than men (85.8% of women, 83.6% of men). In April 2011 this was 87% of women compared to 85.1% of men.


Surveys suggest men were slightly more likely to vote than women (but only by 1-3 percentage points) in the past 4 elections.

Councillors, candidates, MPs

In 2013, 32% of local authority councillors in England were women. In the North East (41%), in Scotland (24%), in Wales (26%) and Northern Ireland (23%).

191 women MPs were elected at the 2015 General Election, 29% of all MPs. Just over 35% of members in the Scottish Parliament are women, compared to two-fifths of members of National Assembly for Wales. Following the 2014 European Parliament elections, women comprised just over two-fifths of UK MEPs.

People with disabilities

Political activities

The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that in 2013/2014, there was no significant difference between the proportions of people with (31.7%) and without (29.7%) disabilities who had engaged in one or more of four political activities in the last 12 months.

Electoral registration

People with physical disabilities were more likely to be on the electoral register than any other group. The Electoral Commission suggests this might be because they are less likely to move home, and mobility is an important driver of low levels of registration.

A small scale study of patients in psychiatric wards in Westminster found that only 43% of patients had registered to vote for the 2010 General Election, compared to 97% of the local eligible population. Of those registered to vote, only 33% had voted.


The charity Mencap claims that only one third of people with learning disabilities in the UK vote. While no other data is available on turnout among people with disabilities in the UK, a 2002 study of voting among disabled people in the US showed that 52.6% of respondents with disabilities reported they had voted in the 1998 election, compared to 59.4% of respondents without disabilities.

Councillors, candidates, MPs

The 2013 Census of Local Authority Councillors reported that 13.2% of councillors had “a long-term health problem or disability. The Disability News Service reported in 2015 that there were two MPs who self-reported as having a disability.

Overseas voters

The Government does not keep track of citizens living abroad, so no information is available on their attitudes and levels of participation in political activities. It is difficult to calculate the total number of people who would be eligible to register as overseas voters.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in its 2014 report on Voter engagement in the UK estimated that less than 1% of British citizens living abroad were registered to vote.

Further reading

Additional information in the PDF includes:

English regions and Wales

  • Attitudes
  • Political activities
  • Electoral registration
  • Voting
  • Turnout at UK General Elections, 1918-2015
  • 2015 General Election turnout by constituency: average, top 3 and lowest 30
  • Highest and lowest participation turnout rates
  • Councillors, candidates, MPs


Political disengagement: policy initiatives

The Cabinet Office published a policy paper on the Government’s democratic engagement programme on 8 May 2015. The programme “is part of the government's strategy to increase levels of voter registration and engagement”, and includes a commitment to maximising electoral registration, as well as custom made resources to engage a variety of disengaged groups.

Further information

Publication details

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7501

Author: Elise Uberoi

Topics: Elections, Parliament

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