Overview of change

Discussions continue around political polarisation and participation, and in recent decades, there has been a rise in political polarisation in many large democracies.1 There are indications that politics is becoming more polarised worldwide, particularly in the US, but how far this applies to the UK and the consequences for political participation remain unclear. There have been reductions in the number of people who strongly identify with a particular party or along a left-right axis, with a trend for citizens to feel their political opinions are unrepresented.2 Political fragmentation (where parties have split into smaller groups and electoral volatility increased) has occurred in the UK and much of Europe.34 Instead of parties, there are suggestions that people are aligning themselves based on specific political/social issues (known as ‘issue polarisation’).56 Media claims that the UK population is divided along the lines of the EU referendum vote have been challenged as overly simplistic,2,7 however, and issue polarisation is not necessarily reflected in different group identities. For example, while UK voters may strongly identify with their ‘side’ of the Brexit vote and view the other side negatively (known as ‘affective polarisation’),89 there tends to be less disagreement between their positions on many salient issues besides immigration.2

Economic, social and institutional factors can affect groups’ engagement in politics and in their political identity.10 Increased levels of relative deprivation and feelings of a lack of political representation can decrease levels of ‘conventional’ political participation (such as voting or belonging to a political party) while increasing ‘unconventional’ participation (such as protest).1112 People tend to protest more during periods of economic hardship or perceived inequality, such as Occupy Wall Street or the Gilets Jaunes movements. Extreme protest behaviours (such as disruptive direct action or violent protest) that have been witnessed in recent years are associated with a variety of political/social issues and movements.13 Research suggests that this can create a backlash effect where people move their views further away from the movement, further contributing to affective polarisation and in some cases creating ‘reciprocal radicalisation’.14,15,16 In addition, populist narratives have been shown to increase political participation in certain groups.17 Populist narratives can articulate a grievance or dissatisfaction with political systems,18 and a combination of populist narratives, polarisation and feelings of relative deprivation can lead to greater levels of unconventional participation and lead to political adjustment.

While the effects of the pandemic on future participation and polarisation are not yet fully understood, a study examining the association between influenza deaths and local voting preferences in Germany in the early 20th century found that high levels of mortality in a year were associated with an increase in votes for extremist political parties.19 Some point out that reductions in social interactions and social isolation during lockdowns may reduce political participation, as these are a key antecedent of political engagement.20 Suggestions for how to reduce polarisation range from greater public funds to support broadcast media to moving away from predominantly two-party systems.21,22 Other suggestions for broadening participation include ensuring that politicians are representative of their electorate and tackling ongoing concerns about the lack of diversity in politics. For example, people are more likely to donate to political figures who share their characteristics (such as gender), and women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to donate to political campaigns than White men.23 Research also suggests that White voters may be less likely to vote for a candidate appearing to appeal to ethnic minority communities.24

Challenges and opportunities

  • A rise in issue-based politics may present challenges for party-political systems. However, there may be opportunities for greater cross-party alliances or moves to non-party-based political systems.
  • There is some evidence on how to reverse polarisation and countries may use these means to create a more cohesive society following the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • More research into diversity in politics has allowed better understanding of how to engage with a greater proportion of the electorate. This may encourage wider public participation in politics in the future.

Key unknowns

  • How will the increased inequalities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic affect people’s political beliefs and voting habits in the long-term?
  • Is it possible to identify when countries are reaching ‘peak’ polarisation or what effect different interventions have on reducing nationwide polarisation?
  • How can individuals from under-represented backgrounds best be encouraged to engage with politics, and how can their views better be represented in the political landscape?

Key questions for Parliament

  • What does the electorate want politics in the UK to look like following the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How can the political system within the UK best represent the diversity of its citizens?
  • What is the likelihood of civil unrest resulting from COVID-19?
  • What are the most effective strategies for maintaining and building public trust in public bodies and democracy?25

Likelihood and impact

Medium impact and medium likelihood over the next five years.

Research for Parliament 2021

Experts have helped us identify 30 areas of change to help the UK Parliament prepare for the future.


  1. Boxell, L., Gentzkow, M., and Shapiro, J. (2020). Cross-country trends in affective polarization. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 26669.
  2. Duffy, B. et al (2019). Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK. KCL Policy Institute.
  3. The Economist (2019). The fragmentation of the big parties.
  4. Bergsen, P. (2019). Don’t Be Afraid of Political Fragmentation. Chatham House.
  5. Wheatley, J. (2020). The future of politics after COVID-19: Four trends that are already discernible. LSE Blog
  6. DiMaggio, P., Evans, J., Bryson, B. (1996). Have American’s Social Attituides Become More Polarized? American Journal of Sociology vol. 102, No. 3, pp. 690-755
  7. More in Common [online]. Britain’s Choice: Common Ground and Division in 2020s Britain. Accessed 26/03/21.
  8. Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press.
  9. Hobolt, S., Leeper, T., Tilley, J. (2020). Divided by the Vote: Affective Polarization in the Wake of the Brexit Referendum. British Journal of Political Science, 1-18.
  10. Berinsky, A.J., Lenz, G.S. (2011). Education and Political Participation: Exploring the Causal Link. Polit Behav 33, 357–373.
  11. Grosso, M., et al (2019). Relative deprivation and inequalities in social and political activism. Acta Politica, vol.54, pp398-429.
  12. Quaranta, M. (2012). The Rise of Unconventional Political Participation in Italy: Measurement Equivalence and Trends, 1976-2009. Bulletin of Italian Politics, vol.4, no.2, pp.251-276.
  13. Kleiner, TM. (2020) Does ideological polarisation mobilise citizens? Eur Polit Sci 19, 573–602.
  14. Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Kovacheff, C. (2020). The activist’s dilemma: Extreme protest actions reduce popular support for social movements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1086–1111.
  15. Allchorn, W., Dafnos, A. (2020). Far-Right Mobilisations in Great Britain: 2009-2019. CARR FRGB Dataset Research Report. Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
  16. Joel Busher & Graham Macklin (2015) Interpreting “Cumulative Extremism”: Six Proposals for Enhancing Conceptual Clarity, Terrorism and Political Violence, 27:5, 884-905,
  17. Anduiza, E., Guinjoan, M., & Rico, G. (2019). Populism, participation, and political equality. European Political Science Review, 11(1), 109-124.
  18. Schulte-Cross, J. (2020). How the mobilisation of the politically disaffected works to the advantage of right-wing populist parties. The Loop.
  19. Blickle, K. (2020). Pandemics Change Cities: Municipal Spending and Voter Extremism in Germany, 1918-1933. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports.
  20. La Due Lake, R. and Huckfeldt, R., 1998. Social capital, social networks, and political participation. Political psychology, 19(3), pp.567-584.
  21. Boxell, L., Gentzkow, M., and Shapiro, J. (2020). Cross-country trends in affective polarization. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 26669.
  22. Drutman, L. (2020). The two-party system is killing our democracy. Vox
  23. Grumbach, J.M., Sahn, A. & Staszak, S. (2020). Gender, Race, and Intersectionality in Campaign Finance. Polit Behav.
  24. Berinsky, A., et al (2020). The Effect of Associative Racial Cues in Elections, Political Communication, 37:4, 512-529
  25. POST (2020). Covid-19 Areas of Research Interest.

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

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