Political inequality threatens the integrity of British democracy. As the general election approaches, many of the symptoms of the democratic distress we are experiencing are rooted in its existence. Growing levels of electoral inequality by age and class, falling political participation rates, and low levels of belief in the efficacy of democracy, all reflect an ingrained sense that the political process is rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and the well connected.

Political inequality is when certain individuals or groups have greater influence over political decision-making and benefit from unequal outcomes through those decisions, despite procedural equality in the democratic process. As such, it undermines a central democratic ideal: that all citizens, regardless of status, should be given equal consideration in and opportunity to influence collective political decision-making.

If we are to revive our democracy, regardless of the result in May, tackling political inequality must therefore become the fundamental goal of political and constitutional reform in the next parliament. To do so, however, it is critical we better understand the nature of political inequality and how it manifests itself.

The purpose of this report is therefore to define and explore the concept of political inequality, a phenomenon that remains underexplored in the British context. A second report based on the insights this report generates will follow in the spring, setting out a strategy for reversing political inequality, and providing detailed original case studies of examples of political inequality.

We begin by defining the concept of political inequality and why it matters, both from normative democratic concerns, and due to its effect on social and economic outcomes. Original polling for this report, which highlights stark class-based inequalities in the perception of how our democracy operates – and for whose benefit – demonstrates the degree of the problem. Only one in four DE voters, for example, believes democracy addresses their interests well, a 20 point difference compared to AB voters. A striking 63 per cent think it serves their interests badly. We must better understand why this is the case, and political inequality’s role in causing it, if we are to address such disparities of experience.

The report then explores the academic literature emerging around the concept, which provides important insights into how political inequality occurs and to what consequence. In particular we investigate the relationship between political and economic inequality, the hollowing out of political parties, the broader phenomenon of post-democracy, and how questions of political economy shape the nature of political inequality.

Finally, we conduct a survey of political inequality in the UK today, examining who participates in political life, both formally, through voting and participating in political activity, and informally, through analysing who has voice and who is represented in British politics. What is clear is that differences in participation and influence by class and age are evident in almost all aspects of the political process. Political inequality appears ingrained, to the detriment of British democracy.

This analysis helps us to identify areas of thinking or potential action which are not prominent in the current political reform debate, and which will inform a follow-up report later in 2015 which sets out a strategy for tackling the problem.

  • An agenda focussed on reversing political inequality must be far more sensitive to the effects of class and age in terms of who participates – and has influence – politically.
  • Political inequality is intimately bound up in other socioeconomic inequalities.
  • Devolution provides a critical opportunity to combat political inequality, potentially giving people a greater say over political decision-making in their locality and helping redress the overcentralisation of power in Whitehall.
  • More broadly, the evidence presented suggests representative democracy needs a reboot.
  • Political inequality is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, manifesting itself in multiple spheres in society.

Of course, there are many signs of democratic vitality in the UK today, from the mobilisation of all parts of Scottish society during and after the independence referendum, to civic campaigns across the country, for example for the living wage or affordable housing, to new forms of political activity facilitated by new networked technologies and the internet.

Nonetheless, the extensive nature of political inequality that we set out suggests that a strategy for democratic revival – rooted explicitly in tackling inequalities of participation and influence – is desperately needed. By better understanding the phenomenon of political inequality this report hopes to contribute towards such efforts.