Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015


January Workshop Report

By UoSAnti-Politics |

On 12-13 January, we organised a two-day workshop to report initial findings from the project and to invite comments from participants to help guide our research over the forthcoming months. The workshop revealed an interdisciplinary concern with popular understandings of politics by bringing together political scientists, geographers, pollsters and historians.

In the first session, Gerry Stoker spoke about the problem of defining anti-politics. He suggested anti-politics represented an amalgam of attitudes and behaviours that connected to other concepts such as political alienation and distrust. The ensuing discussion raised questions about new forms of engagement, the relationship between attitudes and behaviour and the position of populist parties in relation to anti-politics.

In the second session, Will Jennings spoke about using survey data as evidence for the rise of anti-politics since 1937. Drawing upon data from BIPO, Gallup, Ipsos-MORI, British Election Study and British Social Attitudes Survey, as well as assorted polls by ICM, YouGov and Populus, Will presented evidence of long term decline in specific support for political institution and leaders, as well as diffuse support for the political system and institutional norms. The following discussion focused on comparisons between the UK and other countries, variations within the UK and the challenges of accounting for historical context when measuring attitudinal change over time from survey data.

In the final session of day one, Mass Observation Curator Fiona Courage provided an introduction to MO and spoke about the various data available on formal politics in the archive. Nick Clarke went on to provide a summary of how we have used Mass Observation data during the project. He described our sampling technique and discussed the various directives we have analysed. Finally, he discussed our analytical approach to the material and explained how we have read for the shared categories, storylines and folk theories which helped to construct and express popular understanding in each period.

Jonathan Moss began day two by discussing some of the possible explanations for the rise of anti-politics that we have identified in the MO material. This included the changing criteria citizens use to judge politicians; and citizens’ changing folk theories of how democracy should and does work. The presentation kicked off a discussion about the role of the media in explaining the rise of anti-politics, existing explanations – such as the rise of critical citizens and the decline of deference, and the strengths and weaknesses of historical comparative analysis.

In the fifth session, Nick Clarke spoke about the changing spaces of political encounter and interaction between citizens and politicians. Drawing upon MO election diaries from 1945 and 2001, he illustrated a shift in the contexts of political encounter – from meetings and radio speeches to stage-managed televised debates and media coverage – which meant politicians were less oriented to performances of ability and character, whilst citizens were less oriented to well-calibrated judgements of politics. The following discussion raised questions about the impact of leaders’ debates and political encounters outside of election campaigns.

Gerry Stoker concluded the workshop by discussing possible reform options for the future. He spoke about citizens’ preferences for reforms based upon focus groups carried out between 2011 and 2012. He pointed out that the overwhelming majority of suggestions were related to the processes of how representative politics is conducted, rather than outputs. Many were particularly concerned with finding ways to ensure elected representatives were more transparent and held accountable for their performance. The final discussion centred on issues such as citizens’ juries, the House of Lords and the role of politicians, citizens and experts in identifying reform options for the future.

The research team would like to thank participants for their attendance and very helpful provocations.


Peter Allen (QMUL)
Nick Clarke (University of Southampton)
Claudia Chwalisz (Policy Network and University of Sheffield)
Fiona Courage (Mass Observation)
Matt Flinders (University of Sheffield)
Will Jennings (University of Southampton)
Roger Mortimore (Ipsos MORI)
Jonathan Moss (University of Southampton)
Emma Peplow (History of Parliament Trust)
Alan Renwick (UCL)
Emily Robinson (University of Sussex)
Meg Russell (UCL)
Clare Saunders (University of Exeter)
Paul Seaward (History of Parliament Trust)
Ben Seyd (University of Kent)
Laurence Stellings (Populus)
Gerry Stoker (University of Southampton and University of Canberra)
Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (UCL)
Paul Webb (University of Sussex)


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