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Low election turnout reflects the failure of UK politicians


The general elections of 2001 and 2005 had the second and third worst turnouts since 1900, falling from 71% in 1997 to under 60% in 2001 and only just above 61% this May. In ESRC’s new report Seven Deadly Sins, published to launch Social Science Week 2005, Professor Charlie Jeffery uses the British Election Study and other surveys of political participation to understand this growing voter apathy.

He argues that the real problem lies not in the voters’ sloth but in the failure of politicians to inspire trust, to communicate clear policy platforms and to reach out to habitual non-voters. That failure seems deeply embedded at the UK level but is also present in the devolved nations despite extravagant claims made in the 1990s about a new politics of better participation for ordinary citizens.

UK-wide trends: the low interest ghetto

Falling turnout is not caused by falling interest in politics. Indeed, levels of interest in politics are remarkably stable. What seems to be happening is a fall in our capacity to mobilise those least interested in politics to turn out. And there is no ‘compensation effect’ in new, more direct forms of political activity. Those who join pressure groups, sign petitions or go on protest marches correlate tightly with those most likely to vote.

What is happening is the creation of a ‘ghetto’ of the least interested, whom politics increasingly fails to reach. That the least interested are often also the most socially disadvantaged, especially in inner-city seats, adds to the problem. Elections, in their role in expressing citizenship, are increasingly revealing social inequalities in the UK.

UK-wide trends: losing the young?

In both devolved and general elections, younger age groups turn out far less than older age groups. Age is by far the most consistent demographic influence on turnout. This has partly to do with levels of interest. Younger people are as little motivated as those from the most socially disadvantaged groups. They are more likely than other age groups to justify non-voting in terms of not being interested in elections.

Such non-voting has typically been part of a ‘life-cycle’ in which younger people come to take a fuller interest in politics as they become older, amid mortgages, parenthood and so on. There is no clear evidence as yet that this cycle is breaking down, though the Electoral Commission has voiced concerns that today’s young people are more cynical about politics than their predecessors.

UK-wide trends: politicians and the problem of the ‘foregone conclusion’

We do not like politicians very much, we do not think much of their integrity, and we expect them, if not to lie, then to ‘spin’ and manipulate us, according to public opinion research. And the cynicism about politics these views reflect has an impact. Among those who make a deliberate decision not to vote, perceptions of politicians and political parties as self-interested and lacking honesty clearly play a role.

We are also not engaged by elections that either at the level of overall results or in individual constituencies appear uncompetitive. There are two senses to this ‘foregone conclusion’ problem. One is that the parties do not offer distinctive policies, but crowd around the centre ground: so if it ‘makes no difference’ who wins, why bother voting?

The other sense is where the outcome of an election appears clear before it is held. This was the ‘apathetic landslide’ in the 2001 general election, and is the case in many individual constituencies that are safe seats.

Why hasn’t devolution increased turnout?

Devolution was supposed to be about bringing government closer to the people, building a new sense of engagement and participation in parts of the UK neglected by a Westminster-dominated political system. But if turnout is any measure, it hasn’t worked.

In the devolved elections in Scotland and Wales in 1999 and 2003, turnout was lower than in all Westminster elections since 1997, and fell markedly in between: from 59% to 49% in Scotland and from 45% to 38% in Wales.

So why hasn’t devolution delivered increased participation? The reasons are complex, partly reflecting UK-wide trends but also ‘home-grown’ factors. In particular, the electorates of the devolved nations seem to feel that devolution has not made much difference. This is partly to do with unrealistic expectations at the outset, especially in Scotland. But there is also a feeling that Westminster still dominates.

Prior to devolution, over 40% of Scots thought the new Parliament would have ‘most influence over the way Scotland is run’. By 2001, only 15% thought the Parliament had the most influence in practice. By 2003, the figures had closed a little but nonetheless the story is clear: many Scots had very high and largely unrealistic expectations about the impact of devolution, and now feel disappointed.

Analysts should be careful to draw the right conclusions from the apparent sloth in devolved elections. First, it does not signify hostility to devolution per se. Devolution is still the most popular constitutional option, with support, if anything, hardening since 1997, especially in Wales. People may be disappointed with devolution but are not against it. Second, in pretty much every other country with equivalent forms of devolved government, turnout in devolved elections is normally 5-10% lower than in general elections. The UK situation doesn’t look too far out of line.

Becky Gammon | alfa
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