Most people in Wales don’t know how our democracy works – new report
The lack of knowledge most people have about the workings of democracy is undermining our society and should be addressed as a matter of urgency, according to extensive research carried out in Wales.
Democracy Box, a project developed before Covid as a means of engaging young people in politics, widened into one that looked at the extent of alienation affecting all age groups.
Created originally by Yvonne Murphy, a freelance creative consultant, it was largely taken over by a team of young “co-creators” who devised ways of making politics more accessible through unorthodox means like music and rapping. Drop-in sessions known as The Talking Shop were also held at different locations in Wales where locals could chat with the young people involved in the project.
Launching the Democracy Box report at the Tramshed Tech in Grangetown, Cardiff, Ms Murphy said: “There currently exists a gaping knowledge and information gap about our democracy for the majority of the population. This is caused by a lack of joined up, easy to access and engaging information. This in turn is leading to record levels of disillusionment, distrust, disengagement and dissatisfaction with our UK democracy.”
A 17-year-old co-creator said: “Engagement comes from understanding. People are only going to be interested in something if they understand it. If you don’t understand, why would you take part?”.
Young co-creators who have worked on the project said that before getting involved their knowledge about democracy had been minimal.
Actress and singer Saskia Pay said: “On April 22 2020, amongst the daily mental health walks and news conferences with the PM, I applied to be part of an R and D project which I saw advertised online as ‘The Box’. It was a time when the creative world had been squashed by lockdowns and the political landscape was difficult, to say the least.
“As a young person, stuck in my house, I didn’t feel heard or seen or that the people in charge cared about me or my mates, and in my application I referred to myself as a political outsider – although I didn’t think that my friends cared about not being heard and it frustrated me that we weren’t being taught anything about democracy in school.”
Singer and guitarist Josh Whyte said when he applied to join the project he’d had a conversation with Ms Murphy: ”The little that I knew about democracy turned out to be more than most of my age and younger, and some older. It started me thinking, what could I get involved with – I didn’t know I could make this change.”
Theatre technician Dafydd Poole made an admission. He said: “It was a very embarrassing moment for me when I said in the Senedd, in front of the Education Minister, ‘What is this Demo-crassy Box?’ I knew so little about democracy that I was pronouncing the word wrong.”
Ms Murphy said: “The two main barriers to democratic participation identified through The Democracy Box research are a lack of knowledge of, and access to, our democratic systems and structures, and a frenzied focus on elections and voting.
“Some of the main reasons consistently given for not participating, registering to vote or voting are a lack of simple clear information, ‘problematic’ language which disempowers, a lack of active listening by politicians and decision makers and the flow of communication being perceived as in one direction (top down.)”
According to a YouGov Democracy Study in 2020, most think they have little (36%) or no say (34%) in how the UK is run.
Ms Murphy said: “However, people are engaged with local, devolved, UK and global issues and themes.I know from talking to thousands of people all over Wales inside The Talking Shop trials that they really care about their local areas and communities. They care about their schools, public spaces, and social services. And yet most people do not know who their councillors are or how to contact them or that these elected representatives are deciding budgets and policies which affect the quality of their lives every single day.
“A lack of knowledge about our democratic systems and structures makes it impossible to access them. This leaves many people, of all ages, frustrated and unsure of how to get their voices heard about the issues which matter to them most. Can we honestly claim to have a democracy if the majority of citizens do not actually understand how that democracy works and fits together?
“This is our democratic deficit: 62% either do not understand or want or need more information on the basics of our UK democracy. 75% do not understand or only partly understand what devolution is and what is devolved. 65% don’t know who represents them in the Senedd or what a Member of Senedd does or is responsible for.
“77% don’t know who their councillors are or what a councillor does or is responsible for. 39% do not know who their MP is or how to contact them. 67% either do not know or only partly understand the difference between Parliament and Government.
“73% have never heard of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Most young people who contributed to this research (and people of all ages inside The Talking Shop) did not understand the difference between our various parliaments (devolved and Westminster) and all our forms of government (local, devolved and UK) or the different elections that are held and how their votes are counted in each.
“I met one 19-year-old person in an early online focus group who was quite angry and said she had voted for the first time at 18 and would never vote again. When I asked her why, she started to talk about a frustration with the First Past the Post method of vote counting. Except she didn’t have that vocabulary or knowledge of our voting systems. So I gave a very fast overview of FPTP and PR and how they both had pros and cons and then she was really angry and wanted to know why she had gone through a whole school education and become an adult with no one giving her that information.
“The majority of people who have contributed to this research do not know who their elected representatives are or how to contact them. They don’t understand devolution or what is devolved and what words like ‘constituency’, ‘ward’ or ‘district’ refer to or the difference between parliament and government or terms commonly used by the media like ‘left’ and ‘right’ (when it comes to the political spectrum).This does not mean they do not want to know. They are passionate about knowing and are really angry and frustrated that they don’t.
“If 77% of people don’t know what a councillor is or what they are responsible for is it any wonder so few turn out for local elections? Because why would you want to take part in and vote in a system you do not understand?”
Ms Murphy said the key finding of the research was that the best way to ensure everyone can engage and participate in our democracy is to ensure everyone understands our democracy and knows how to influence decisions, policy and legislation and get their voices heard 365 days a year – every year.
She said: “Democratic education in schools was the highest priority for everyone I spoke to during the course of this research. Public Information campaigns outside of elections was the second highest. Public information campaigns run directly by government (of any political party) were deemed not suitable, neutral or trustworthy. State-funded information campaigns – if run by neutral organisations – were acceptable to the majority.
“The Democracy Box research suggests that the current focus on elections and getting people to register to vote – and vote – is at best ineffective and, at worst, and rather ironically, may actually be contributing to our record low levels of voter turn-out. Engaging and mobilising only for elections creates a cycle of wall-to-wall election coverage, followed by tumbleweed. This cycle is leading people to feel powerless and excluded, with many people feeling disillusioned with the ballot box as the only advertised/perceived method of participation.
“I have been asked more than once how we can sustain interest year round in our democracy and create a buzz outside of elections. This is an interesting and, I would argue, a misplaced concern. We don’t worry about creating a buzz around maths and English – or other life information that we all accept everyone needs to know, or have a basic standard of knowledge about, in order to take part in society.
“The words we use are key and we need to ensure we have a shared vocabulary and avoid ‘problematic language’. In focus groups over the last three years a constant refrain has been heard: ‘Slow down, go back – we don’t even understand the words you are using.’ The vast majority of the hundreds of young people who have contributed to this research did not understand the basics of how our UK democracy is structured. Some did not even know what the word ‘democracy’ itself meant or that the UK is a democratic country.
“The word ‘politics’ is strongly connected to concerns around truth and trust for many people and is often thought to imply ‘party politics’. The word ‘politics’ heats up the discussion. In contrast, the word ‘democracy’ cools down the discussion and allows people to think about how to work together collectively for the greater good now and for future generations.”
Ms Murphy said that peer-to-peer learning and information sharing had been consistently evidenced as the route to success and to transforming democratic engagement and participation.The project trialled Democracy Box young co-creators working as democracy storytellers at events and in schools and colleges. Participant feedback confirmed a direct correlation between this activity and registering to vote and voting. The only barrier to up-scaling this work was investment.
She said: “Diversity and representation in any campaign is a high priority for the majority and a lack of it is deemed a barrier. The need for joined-up, truly collaborative thinking and working and a long-term approach to democratic education and information, rather than multiple short-term fixes and approaches, was also cited routinely as key to change.
“Trust and truth –a general concern about how to find the truth in an oversaturated digital world and a lack of trust were key recurring themes throughout the research.
“There is a significant breakdown of trust in democracy across all generations, including a growing lack of trust in elected representatives, political parties, the media and the structures and systems surrounding all three levels of government.
“People want a one-stop shop for democratic information – both digital and in person. When asked where and how they wanted to be able to access this information, everyone who contributed to this research said they wanted it via schools and via easily accessible public information both digital and in-person.
“And to make the information: make it relevant to people’s lives; make it easy to find and all in one place; and make it simple and easy to understand.
“Finally, people want to see a role for themselves as engaged citizens. They want to contribute and be valued.”
Ms Murphy concluded: “The evidence from my research suggests that if we do change our focus and promote and celebrate everyday democracy, then a significant increase across all forms of democratic engagement and participation, including voter turnout, will follow.”
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