BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK Politics
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 20:31 GMT
Postal votes to tackle low turnout
Ballot box
Traditional methods are failing to bring out voters
If there is one thing politicians fear more than being despised, it is being ignored.

So it is no surprise that parties in the UK are becoming increasingly concerned about the number of people choosing to exercise their democratic right not to vote.

In the latest of several attempts to reinvigorate civic duty - which have included opening polling stations in supermarkets - anxious MPs are now looking hopefully at the postal vote.

General election turnout
1992: 78%
1997: 72%
2001: predicted to be lower

At previous elections postal votes were given only to those who could prove an inability or incapacity to vote in person.

But recent changes in the law mean that anyone whose name is on the electoral register can ask for a postal vote.

Politicians hoping the innovation will succeed in bringing in the vote know they have a mountain to climb.

Low turnout

In the 1999 European elections the UK recorded a turnout of 23% - a lower figure than in any other EU country.

In the same year a Parliamentary by-election in Leeds saw turnout fall below 20%.

Interest in general elections also appears to be experiencing a decline, with participation falling from 78% at the 1992 election, to 72% in 1997.

And experts are predicting the forthcoming poll will register the lowest popular response for more than eighty years.

The BBC's political research editor, David Cowling, estimates it could drop as low as 68%.

He said: "Unlike 1997, it seems the first three priorities for Tony Blair and Labour will have to be: motivation, motivation, motivation."

Post box
Could the postal vote turn around turnout?

It is no coincidence that the Government is looking to exploit alternative methods of voting in a bid to maximise turnout.

Research indicates that voter indifference is likely to hit Labour hardest.

A survey of 3,000 adults undertaken for the Economic and Social Research Council indicates that 87% of those who voted Conservative in 1997 are very likely to vote in the next election, while only 74% of Labour voters say the same.

Failure to motivate its core supporters will cost Labour seats, and it is this knowledge that has prompted 'Operation Turnout', a concerted campaign to get out the vote.

Out of bounds

If the next election is held on 3 May, as expected, abstention could be exacerbated by the effects of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which has put many rural areas out of bounds.

Government minister Margaret Beckett suggested last week that the postal vote could be used to overcome the restrictions on movement caused by the disease.

Unison, the public sector union, has decided to promote postal voting among its members.

A spokesperson said: "Many of our members work on shifts, or in home care, and it can be quite difficult for them to get to polling stations."

But if politicians look to the postal vote to overturn low turnout, they will be forced confront another question.

How will they persuade people to walk to the post box?

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

26 Jan 01 | Talking Politics
Poll monitor: Turnout fears remain
28 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Foot-and-mouth 'could delay election'
25 Nov 99 | UK Politics
Turnout fears for by-election
10 Jun 99 | UK Politics
By-election turnout 'lowest since WWII'
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more UK Politics stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK Politics stories