Power and voice
Democracy is predicated on the idea that every individual, no matter what their background or personal circumstances, should have an equal opportunity to have a say in decisions about the country’s future.
In practice, some groups of people are less likely than others to exercise their democratic right to vote; less likely to attain elected office; less likely to feel able to influence decisions in their local area; and less likely to take part in other forms of political or civic activity.
Women are slightly more likely to vote than men, but despite some progress towards parity, the proportion of women in elected office in Westminster remains below 25%. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are closer to gender parity, but in all three nations, local councillors are also predominantly male.
In the Westminster Parliament, despite some evidence of progress, most religious and ethnic minorities are still under-represented. However, lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people, and some people from ethnic and religious minorities, are more likely to take part in other forms of political or civic activity and more likely to feel able to influence local decisions.
People with a disability or a long-term limiting illness are generally less likely than those without to say that they can influence local decisions, and a majority of polling stations at the last election presented at least one significant access barrier.
Young people are less likely to vote than older people. They are also less likely to hold elected office. The average age of councillors, and of MPs, has increased slightly in recent years.
Finally, people’s socio-economic background affects their sense of power and voice. Professionals are more likely to vote, more likely to hold elected office, and more likely to feel that they can influence local decisions than people from lower occupational groups.
Significant findings and headline data
Despite recent improvements, women and ethnic minorities remain under-represented in Parliament and other political institutions. Young people display declining levels of political activity and engagement in decision-making bodies.
- A minority of adults aged under 25 now vote at general and devolved elections, and the proportions are falling, with under 50% of 18 to 24-year-olds voting in the 2005 general election.
Overall, confidence in being able to influence local decision-making fell in 2001, and has fluctuated ever since.
Levels of engagement and perceptions of influence vary by ethnic group and social class.
- Members of ethnic minorities are more likely than White people to say that they are involved in local decision-making, campaigning or community organisations, such as those providing services to young people. They are also more likely to say that they have influence over local decisions.
- People in professional or managerial jobs are more likely to feel that they can influence local decisions than people from routine occupations.
Parliamentary representation of different groups remains varied. However, there is greater gender diversity in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly than in the UK Parliament.
- The proportion of MPs aged over 50 has risen since 1997.
- Religious and ethnic minorities are still under-represented in Parliament although the number of ethnic minority MPs doubled in the 2010 election. The number of Muslim MPs doubled in 2010, with the first three female Muslim MPs taking their seats.
- The number of openly LGB MPs in Westminster rose from 13 in 2009 to 17 in 2010.
- Women’s representation in Westminster rose remarkably in 1997 and has continued to rise since but remains below 25%.
- Both Holyrood and Cardiff have achieved higher levels of female representation than Westminster has ever managed (35% of Scottish Parliament and 48% of Welsh Assembly Members are currently women).
At a local level, there has been greater success in achieving diverse political representation than in Westminster. Local authority politicians better resemble the British population, although far from fully.
- Three in 10 councillors in England are women; 2 in 10 councillors in Scotland and Wales are women.
Some of the groups who are under-represented in formal politics are more involved in campaigning and decision-making bodies.
- LGB people are more likely to be involved in informal civic or political actions.
Last updated: 25 May 2016