The recent general election saw the highest turnout since 1997, yet one in three people still chose not to vote. On Monday 1 June, we published research that found that only 25% of people trust Parliament, yet 50% trust the overall democratic process. Interestingly, trust improves at a more local level, with 93% of our survey respondents saying they trust other people in their community. So could increased involvement in community activity play a role in rebuilding trust in democracy?
Volunteering in community activity both increases levels of trust and increases the likelihood of getting involved in social action. This is because community activity can provide people with a meaningful sense of influence over the things that matter to them. This is supported by a third of our survey respondents saying they had taken on more a formal role in their community as a result of their connection with the community sector. Nearly half of respondents said that their community involvement had made them more interested in politics.
Take the Deputy Mayor we spoke to, who around 15 years ago set up a residential community association to give a voice to the residents on his housing estate. He proactively attended meetings across his city to ensure residents’ views were heard by local decision makers. This involvement in community activity led to him standing as a councillor in 2011 and eventually becoming the city’s Deputy Mayor. His motivations for this move were, as he put it: “if I was on the inside, I could do even more.” He felt that being a community activist paved the way to achieving real influence in his community.
We know there is a growing appetite to move beyond the consultation of communities, putting them at the heart of local decision making. The Community Rights brought in under the Localism Act 2011 are a welcome step in this direction. These policies should engage those already involved in their community – but how can we reach those who are not yet active?
We are calling on the government to further encourage and enable voluntary activity for those not already involved, as a bridge to boosting involvement in political and civic affairs. Increasing community activity could be achieved through policies which give people more opportunities to volunteer, such as incentives for businesses that offer paid volunteering leave and further investment and roll-out of local volunteering schemes. This crucial investment in the community sector would help reconnect people and politics. And by strengthening communities in the process, we can start to restore trust in democracy.
The findings from “Trust in democracy: how community groups bridge the gap between people and politics” can be viewed in this animation or downloaded in this report.
This article was first published in Politics Home.