British people give political news far less importance than many other topics – but almost half claim to be keeping up with political issues daily. Contradictory attitudes towards politics emerged in the part of the study that looked at political engagement in more detail.
In comparative terms, the UK ranked last in the importance people gave to political news – with only 37% rating it important, nearly 20 percentage points lower than the other countries in our survey (although France and the USA were both in the middle of political campaigns). However, when we asked ‘how important it is for people like you to keep up-to-date on what is happening in politics’, 8 in 10 Britons (79%) said it was important, and only 5% said it was unimportant.
When asked how often they kept up with political issues, 44% said they did so daily or several times a day; 40% said weekly or several times a week; only 16% said they did so only infrequently, only at elections, or never.
Keeping up with political news
Such differences require some explanation. It may be that when people were asked directly about politics (rather than choosing their preferences), they were reminded of their civic duty and found it hard to admit their disinterest. On the other hand, it may that the wording of the two questions conveyed a different meaning. People in the United Kingdom may not like politics at the moment, or consider it edifying, but they may nevertheless feel it is important to find out what is going on, especially if it might affect their daily lives. As the question in this section did not specify ‘domestic’ politics, it may have been interpreted more broadly to include local and international political developments, as well as single- issue political campaigns, and not just Westminster politics (where disillusion is greatest).
Keeping up with political news by age/gender
Interest in political news
The degree of interest in political news varies considerably by age and gender. In general, men take a more active interest than women, and older people more than the young. While 52% of men said they kept up with political issues daily, only 36% of women did so. And the older you get, the more likely you are to be following politics closely. Of those aged over 55, 51% kept up with politics daily, while only 34% of the 16–24s did so.
Interest does not seem to vary by political party affiliation; however those who say they ‘don’t think of themselves as any of these’ (about one-third of the sample) are less likely to follow politics closely, while those who supported the nationalist parties (SNP and Plaid Cymru) were most interested (64% keeping up daily, on a small sample size).
There is also some evidence from our survey of a low level of political engagement among working-class voters – something which has been a long-standing concern of the Labour party in the UK. Among council tenants, only 65% said keeping up with what is happening with politics was important, compared to 79% of the sample as a whole. One-third also said they rarely kept up with political issues (compared to 16% of the sample as a whole). In contrast, 53% of those earning over £30,000 per year keep up with politics daily, compared to only 38% of those earning under £10,000 per year.
Sources of political information
The most widely cited source of political information is – by a wide margin – television. It is followed by online news websites (both broadcast and newspapers). Printed newspapers are considerably further behind, below even political programmes on television. Even taking into account the fact that this is an online survey, this is a remarkably low figure, barely ahead of those who keep up with politics through personal contacts – keeping up via word of mouth is used significantly more by women and young people.
The group we identified as news absorbed, who have an intense interest in news generally, seem to be following political news very closely. Half of this group say they are searching for political news several times a day (compared to 16% for the whole sample). The news absorbed users are the biggest consumers of political programmes on radio and television, specialist political blogs, information published by political parties, email newsletters, and political magazines. They are also twice as likely as average to look at newspapers for political information, and 50% more likely to look at general news websites. In contrast, those who are casual users of news seem to almost exclusively rely on television, and to a lesser extent general news websites, for their political information.
Sources used to keep up-to-date with political issues
How to re-engage young people with politics and encourage more political participation has been widely debated. Some hope that the internet might prove an important tool to help achieve this goal. Many young people who are not interested in news will have excluded themselves from this survey, but even so there are some signs of encouragement.
Using the internet for political involvement
Nearly 6 of 10 young people say they used the internet ‘to get more involved in politics or express a political opinion’ and they were more active than average in using social media to engage in political activity. One in five (21%) posted their political views on a social media site, 14% joined a campaign, and 10% contributed money to a political cause. Most remarkably, more than 7% said they used the internet to find out about a meeting or to volunteer for a political activity.
Using the internet to get involved with politics by age
The area where young people showed a lower rate of political activity was in sending an email about a political candidate or issue (9%) – over 55s were much more likely to do this (22%). For all groups, signing an online petition was the most common form of political engagement. News absorbed users were far more likely to engage actively in politics online (86% compared to 55% overall). They were also twice as likely to use social media to join a campaign.