The rise of anti-politics
This document was published to accompany an event of the
same title. On 19 May 2016, in the Macmillan Room of Portcullis
House, Westminster, a team of researchers from the University
of Southampton – Nick Clarke, Will Jennings, Jonathan
Moss, and Gerry Stoker – discussed the rise of anti-politics in
Britain with MP and historian Tristram Hunt, journalist Isabel
Hardman, and audience members.
In turn, this event was organised to accompany a research
project: ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-
2015’. The project was funded by the Economic and Social
Research Council and led by Dr Nick Clarke (Geography and
Environment, University of Southampton, n.clarke@soton.
ac.uk, 07708 099056). Further details of the project can be
found at http://antipolitics.soton.ac.uk. Here, we provide a brief
The objectives of the project were:
1. To establish the understandings and orientations of
British citizens towards formal politics (politicians, parties,
Parliament, councils, governments).
2. To establish how these have changed over time.
3. To take a longer view of these understandings and
orientations than has been done by most existing research in
4. To listen more to citizens’ voices – their understandings,
expectations, and judgements, as expressed in their own terms
– than has been done by most existing research in the ﬁeld.
5. To suggest explanations for these understandings and
orientations, and how they have changed over time.
To meet these objectives, we analysed two types of data. First,
we analysed survey responses collected by the British Institute
for Public Opinion (BIPO, which later became the UK Gallup
Poll), Ipsos-MORI, the British Election Study, the British Social
Attitudes Survey, YouGov, Populus, and the Hansard Society.
Second, we analysed volunteer writing collected by Mass
Between 1939 and 1955, MO ran a panel of between 400 and
1000 volunteer writers (depending on the year). In 1981, it
revived this panel, which is still running today. In both periods,
MO asked panellists to write about formal politics on several
occasions. We sampled 13 of these ‘directives’ across the two
periods, and 60 responses to each directive (spread across
diﬀerent age groups, genders, regions, and occupational
categories). When sampled carefully, and read carefully for
categories and storylines that are shared between panellists
– and, plausibly, between panellists and citizens in wider
society – these responses allow a comparison between citizens’
understandings and orientations in the so-called ‘golden age’ of
democratic engagement immediately after the Second World
War (when voter turnout reached as high as 84.1%) and the
so-called ‘crisis’ period of recent years (when voter turnout
reached as low as 59.1%).
1) There never was a ‘golden age’ of democratic
Even in the immediate post-war period, substantial
proportions of the population disapproved of governments and
prime ministers (whatever their political persuasion); thought
politicians to be out for themselves and their party (as opposed
to their country); associated political campaigning with vote-
catching stunts, mud-slinging, and a focus on personalities over
policies; and imagined politicians to be self-serving gas-bags.
BIPO/Gallup collected survey data on things like approval
and satisfaction during the 1940s and 50s. It found that on
average just over 40% of citizens disapproved of the record
of the Government during this period, and just under 40%
were dissatisﬁed with the Prime Minister (with only a little
ﬂuctuation around these ﬁgures depending on the particular
Government or Prime Minister in question).
In 1944, BIPO/Gallup asked citizens: do you think that British
politicians are out merely for themselves, for their party, or to
do the best for their country? Some 35% of respondents chose
‘out merely for themselves’, with another 22% selecting ‘for
Following the General Election of 1945, BIPO/Gallup asked: in
general, did you approve or disapprove of the way the election
campaign was conducted by the various parties? Some 42% of
respondents disapproved, giving reasons including ‘too many
vote catching stunts’, ‘too much mud-slinging’, ‘too little stress
laid on policy’, and ‘too much Churchill, too little policy’.
In 1945, MO asked its panel to write about their ‘normal
conversational attitude when talk gets round to politicians’.
Two clear storylines are repeated across the writing of a wide
range of panellists. Politicians were viewed as self-serving, with
prototypical characters here including the ‘self-seeker’ and the
‘place-seeker’. They were also viewed as not being straight-
talking; as being ‘gas-bags’ and ‘gift-of-the-gabbers’.
2) Nevertheless, there has been a rise of anti-
political sentiment over the last six decades.
This rise of anti-politics has taken three forms:
First, increased social scope. More and more citizens
disapprove of governments and prime ministers, with more
and more citizens judging politicians to be out for themselves
and their party. Since the 1940s and 50s, the average level of
government disapproval has risen by about 20% to just over
60%, and prime ministerial dissatisfaction has increased by
almost 20% to around 55% (again, with some ﬂuctuation for
things like the honeymoon periods of new governments, but
with a rising line of best ﬁt that is very clear – see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Government disapproval (BIPO/Gallup and Ipsos-MORI)
In 2014, we partnered with YouGov to ask the same question asked by BIPO/Gallup in 1944 (and again in 1972). This time, 48% of
respondents judged politicians to be ‘out merely for themselves (up from 35%), and 30% selected ‘for their party’ (up from
22%). Only 10% of respondents judged politicians to be out ‘to do their best for their country’ (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Do you think that British politicians are out merely for themselves, for their party, or to do their best for their
country? (BIPO/Gallup and YouGov/University of Southampton)
On this question of social scope, we partnered with YouGov
in 2013 to ask citizens about some common critiques of
politicians. We asked them: 1) if politicians have the technical
expertise/capacity to deal with the complex problems facing
the country; 2) if politicians can make a diﬀerence to pressing
social and economic problems; 3) if politicians possess the
leadership to tell the public the truth about tough decisions
that need to be made; 4) if politicians are too focused on short-
term chasing of media headlines; and 5) if politicians are more
concerned with protecting the interests of the already rich and
powerful in society. Responses are presented in Table 1. We see
a few diﬀerences between social groups, but overall negativity
towards politics appears to be widespread. For example, the
strongest negative response that politicians are too short-term
and media-driven in their behaviour is endorsed by 8 in 10, with
little variation by gender, age, or social grade.
The second form taken by the rise of anti-politics is increased
political scope. Citizens hold more and more grievances with
formal politics. In the current period, they judge politicians
to be self-serving and not straight-talking, but also to be
out of touch, all the same, a joke, and part of a broken and
unfair system. In 2014, we partnered with MO to ask the
same question asked by MO in 1945: ‘What would you say is
your normal conversational attitude when talk gets round to
politicians, clergy, doctors, lawyers, and advertising agents?’.
The number of negative storylines about politicians has grown
since 1945. Put diﬀerently, the number of distinct grievances
citizens hold against politicians has grown. Politicians are
still described as self-interested and not straight-talking. But
now they are also described as out of touch, with prototypical
categories in this storyline including ‘the toﬀ’ (who went
from public school to Oxbridge to Parliament) and ‘the career
politician’ (with little experience of life beyond politics). They
are also thought to be ‘all the same’ ( just focused on swing
voters in marginal seats), a joke (like schoolboys or students
who make gaﬀes), and beneﬁciaries of a system that is broken
and unfair (with too many safe seats and wasted votes).
The third form taken is rising intensity. Citizens disapprove
and hold grievances more and more strongly. We see this in
the language used by MO panellists. In 1945, respondents
wrote about politicians in relatively measured terms. This did
not just reﬂect a culture of deference at the time. In the same
responses, they wrote about clergy as ‘intellectually dishonest’
and ‘spoil-sports’; doctors as ‘uncaring’ and ‘protective of their
own interests’; lawyers as ‘tricksters’ and ‘money-grabbers’; and
advertising agents as ‘frauds’ and ‘social parasites’. By 2014, the
terms for these other professionals had not really strengthened
in the writing of MO panellists. But the terms used for
Q2. Can make
interests of rich
All 20% 63% 33% 80% 72%
Female 19% 62% 36% 78% 72%
Male 21% 64% 29% 82% 73%
18-24 21% 58% 33% 69% 56%
25-39 23% 61% 32% 74% 69%
40-59 18% 59% 29% 82% 75%
60+ 18% 70% 37% 88% 78%
and clerical 19% 65% 32% 80% 68%
manual 21% 60% 33% 80% 78%
Table 1: ‘Strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ responses for survey items on anti-politics (YouGov/University of Southampton)
politicians had certainly strengthened. Citizens now described
their ‘hatred’ for politicians who made them ‘angry’, ‘incensed’,
‘outraged’, ‘disgusted’, and ‘sickened’. They described
politicians as arrogant, boorish, cheating contemptable,
corrupt, creepy, deceitful, devious, disgraceful, fake, feeble,
loathsome, lying, money-grabbing, parasitical, patronising,
pompous, privileged, shameful, sleazy, slimy, slippery, smarmy,
smooth, smug, spineless, timid, traitorous, weak, and wet.
3) Anti-politics describes negative feeling towards
politicians, parties, Parliament, councils, and
Anti-politics, used here, describes negative feeling towards
politicians, parties, Parliament, councils, and governments
in general (as opposed to particular politicians, parties etc.
– which is to be expected in a partisan system). It describes
negative feeling towards these institutions of democracy, as
opposed to the idea of democracy itself (for which there is
widespread support – so anti-politics does not equate to a crisis
for democracy). It describes something more active and deeply
felt than apathy or indiﬀerence. It describes something more
negative than healthy scepticism (i.e. unhealthy cynicism).
4) We should be concerned about the rise of anti-
The rise of anti-politics is concerning for at least four reasons:
First, existing research tells us that anti-political sentiment is
associated with non-participation such as failing to vote, and
non-compliance such as failing to pay taxes.
Second, existing research tells us that negativity regarding
formal politics is not being compensated for by positivity
towards informal politics. In terms of participant numbers,
alternative forms of political action – from protesting and
demonstrating to donating and volunteering – do not seem to
be on the rise. They also appear to be minority forms of action
compared to, say, voting. They also seem to be practised mostly
by citizens who vote and even join mainstream political parties
(making them an extension of the repertoire of already engaged
citizens, as opposed to part of some alternative repertoire for
Third, anti-political sentiment is associated with support for
populism. Populists position themselves as being diﬀerent
from politicians and parties in general; as representing
‘the people’ against ‘the out of touch and corrupt elites’; as
representing ‘common sense’ in a ﬁeld otherwise characterised
by ‘vested interests’ and ‘grubby compromises’. In doing so,
they make a series of misrepresentations: that there is just
one people; that they are of that people (and other politicians
are not); that there is no mutual interdependence between
that people and other peoples (whether external populations
or internal minorities); that there is no need for negotiation
and compromise between multiple and competing interests
and opinions; and that there is no need for procedures and
institutions oriented towards negotiation, compromise, the
making of collective decisions, and the imposing of binding
decisions (what populists disparage as ‘bureaucracy’).
In Britain, UKIP is often described as a populist party. We
analysed survey data from YouGov and Populus, and found
that negative feeling towards the institutions of formal politics
predicts support for UKIP to an equal degree as key social
demographics. Indeed, when social group is held constant, anti-
political sentiment increases the odds of supporting UKIP by
more than a half.
Fourth, anti-political sentiment probably makes government
more diﬃcult. Ministers or councillors may feel they are faced
with a diversity of demands, not aggregated by parties, that
make responsive government and coherent public policy all but
impossible. Ministers or councillors may also feel they lack the
legitimacy necessary to request sacriﬁces from citizens (of the
kind often required to solve major policy problems).
5) The rise of anti-politics is a complex problem and
is likely to be explained by multiple factors.
In the existing literature, explanations are often categorised
into demand-side, supply-side, and political communication
On the demand-side, it is argued that citizens have changed.
They have become wealthier and better educated, less aligned
to the main parties, and more consumerist in their approach to
On the supply-side, it is argued that politics has changed.
Governments perform less well against an expanded set of
criteria. Power has been distributed to other actors, such that
politicians are now viewed as less powerful and less worthy
of engagement by citizens. Politicians and parties are less
distinguishable in ideological terms (the so-called ‘neoliberal
consensus’), such that citizens fail to see how engaging with
formal politics could substantially change their lives.
It is also argued that political communication has changed.
Politics has become increasingly mediated and journalists
have increasingly framed politics in negative terms. Political
campaigning has become professionalised and focused on
controlled rallies, photo opportunities, and soundbites;
agenda-setting; the personalities of party leaders; and ﬂoating
voters in marginal seats (to the exclusion of other voters).
6) The rise of anti-politics is explained in part by
citizens’ changing images of the good politician,
and changing modes of interaction between
citizens and politicians.
Volunteer writing for MO suggests two changes that help to
explain the rise of anti-politics in Britain:
Images of the good politician have changed and become more
diﬃcult for politicians to achieve. In 1950, MO asked panellists:
how do you feel about Attlee, Churchill, Bevin, Cripps, and
Bevan? The responses provide access to the criteria citizens
used to judge politicians in the immediate post-war period.
These criteria suggest an imagined ‘good politician’ of good
character, principles, a mind of their own, self-control,
strength, competency, vision, and personality. We partnered
with MO to ask a similar question in 2014: how do you feel
about Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Hague, and Osborne? The
criteria used to judge politicians have changed, suggesting a
changed image of the good politician – who should now be
strong, intelligent, competent, principled, and trustworthy;
but also sensible yet fun, hard-working yet cool and eﬀortless,
an exceptional personality yet normal and ordinary. The image
of the good politician used to be multi-faceted but coherent
and just about achievable for some politicians. It has become
characterised by tensions and contradictions, and would be
diﬃcult to achieve under any circumstances. It is especially
diﬃcult to achieve by current forms of political interaction –
our next point.
Political interaction between citizens and politicians has
changed, making it more diﬃcult for politicians to perform
virtues to citizens and for citizens to calibrate judgements of
politicians. This can be seen in the General Election diaries
of MO panellists (kept on seven occasions between 1945 and
2015). In the immediate post-war period, citizens encountered
politicians most prominently in long radio speeches and rowdy
political meetings. Politicians spoke on the radio for a testing
length of time without interruption. They spoke at meetings
where citizens could react, heckle, and ask their own questions.
As a result of this political interaction, citizens could listen to,
hear, challenge, and judge politicians as good or bad speakers,
and better or worse candidates. In the current period, citizens
encounter politicians most prominently in televised debates
and associated news reporting. Interaction is heavily mediated.
Many citizens ﬁnd televised debates to be stage-managed, with
topics avoided and questions not answered. They ﬁnd news
reporting to favour soundbites, photo opportunities, gaﬀes,
polling results, and expert analysis. As a result, many citizens
delegate their judgements to pollsters and experts, or else judge
politicians to be frauds (who stick to the salesperson’s script)
or buﬀoons (who mistakenly go ‘oﬀ script’ and make gaﬀes).
What is to be done?
We should not expect that much can be done about anti-
politics. There never was a golden age of politics in Britain.
Democracy – with all of its promises and compromises – was
always destined to disappoint citizens.
But we should expect that something can be done, because the
scope and intensity of anti-politics are broader and higher than
they were in the past. Things, as they say, could be otherwise.
On the demand-side, we should not expect much. Little can
be done about long-term sociological factors like partisan
dealignment and rising consumerism. Indeed, nothing should
be done to reverse rising wealth and education levels. But
citizenship education could be supported – especially where
it focuses on criteria for judging politicians and images of the
On the supply-side, we should not expect much either. Those
with the power to change politics tend to be the incumbents
who feel they beneﬁt most from the current arrangements.
Still, if politicians want citizens to participate in and legitimate
formal politics, to shun the populists, and to make possible
responsive, coherent, and eﬀective government, they could
respond to the speciﬁc grievances of citizens. They could
respond to accusations of self-interest by looking again at
issues around pay and expenses, campaign ﬁnance, lobbying,
and so on. They could respond to accusations of being out
of touch with ordinary people by looking again at issues
around candidate and leader selection. They could respond to
accusations that politics is broken and unfair, with too many
safe seats and wasted votes, by looking again at issues around
electoral reform and especially proportional representation.
Regarding political communication, we should not expect
much either. The present situation came about for a number
of good reasons – from expansion of the franchise to very real
concerns about the security of politicians. A free press is also
essential for democracy. But politicians could listen to citizens
and respond with less mud-slinging, fewer gimmicks, more
vision, more straight-talking, more direct public engagement,
more engagement with issues that matter most to citizens.
There may even be votes in such a response! Meanwhile,
journalists could learn from the post-war period and give
politicians more time to speak – which, in some cases, would
equate to more rope by which to hang themselves. They could
also give citizens more of a role in setting agendas, posing
questions, and responding to answers received. If all this
left less time for repetitive reporting of soundbites, photo
opportunities, opinion poll results etc. then so much the better.
Finally, there is much talk at the moment of democratic
innovations such as citizens’ assemblies. We are not opposed
to these in principle, but the evidence from this project
suggests that citizens on the whole are not clamouring for
more opportunities to participate in formal politics. First
and foremost, they want politicians to behave better and for
representative democracy to work better for citizens.
To date, the project has produced the following papers:
‘Golden age, apathy, or stealth? Democratic engagement
in Britain, 1945-1950’, forthcoming in Contemporary British
‘The dimensions and impact of political discontent in Britain’,
forthcoming in Parliamentary Aﬀairs, see
‘Anti-politics, Labour, and the left’, forthcoming in Renewal
(with responses from Andrew Gamble, Gavin Shuker, and
Oliver Escobar), see
‘The bifurcation of politics: Two Englands’, forthcoming in The
Political Quarterly, see
We are grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council
for funding the research (grant ES/L007185/1), the Mass
Observation Archive for research assistance and permission to
use material, and Tristram Hunt MP for sponsoring the event
at Portcullis House.