Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Wednesday, 5 May 2010 10:58 UK

Election 2010: The reality TV factor

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Experts are predicting a big increase in the number of people turning out to vote in this year's election compared with 2005.

Brian Fortuna and Ali Bastian
Are we entering the age of Strictly Come Voting?

Much of that is down to the fact that it is a close contest with the result genuinely in the balance. The televised prime ministerial debates have also boosted interest in a way few dared to predict.

But is there another factor at play?

Many of the first time voters will be under 35 - and thanks to reality television they may have a completely different attitude to voting to their parents.

This is a generation that has grown up with the idea that voting is not just something you do in a draughty church hall every four or five years, it is something you can do whenever you like, from the comfort of your own home, over the telephone or internet - and that you can talk about it for hours with your friends on social media sites like Facebook.

This is not to suggest that people are thinking less seriously about the issues, that they have somehow confused choosing the next prime minister with voting to keep John Sergeant in Strictly Come Dancing.

Just that the act of voting itself - and the expectations around it - have changed.

"Young people are very habituated to voting, through social media and text. They are very good at it. They can do it in their sleep," says Professor Janet Jones, principal lecturer in journalism at the University of West England, who has written a book on the voting behaviour of Big Brother viewers around the world.

"If you are 25 or under you are the Big Brother generation. We know that if you are 25 then you were 14 when it all started and that you have been affected by a new kind of relationship with voting."

'Social media'

She compares Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's entry into the prime ministerial race, in the first televised debate, to the arrival of an "unexpected" and "exciting" new character in the Big Brother house.

"Young people are used to getting to know people through television. They enjoy getting to know people and they like being able to control what goes on in their lives through voting.

"They enjoy being shocked by it and the idea that they can do something that will change it, either by getting someone thrown out of the house or by doing something to a democracy that they are not sure means anything."

Add to this the fact that many young people "live their lives through social media networks", in which they can band together with like-minded people to feel they are part of something and it adds up to a form "direct democracy", she argues.

I would imagine there was a relatively small effect from the leaders' debates themselves
Jane Green
Manchester University

The idea that your vote can really change the outcome is the cornerstone of every reality show - and something that is also repeatedly stressed by politicians at general election time, even though, thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system, it is not always true.

So not only do people have much less baggage in terms of party loyalty than they used to, they may also have far higher expectations that their vote can make a difference.

But political experts are wary of buying into the idea that we have entered the age of Strictly Come Voting.

Jane Green, a lecturer in politics at Manchester University, who specialises in voting patterns, questions whether it was the TV debates themselves, which would have mostly been watched by people who already had an interest in the election, or the post-debate coverage in the media which has had the biggest impact on the polls.

"I would imagine there was a relatively small effect from the leaders' debates themselves."

Ben Page, chief executive of pollsters Ipsos Mori, also rejects the reality television analogy.

Young people were a factor in poll movements after the first debate but what really made the difference at that time, according to Ipsos Mori's polling, was the sudden interest of the "anti-politics brigade" - people who were turned off by politics and politicians.

If turnout goes above 70% because of these "wild card voters" who might not normally vote, it will be a tough election to predict accurately, he says.

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