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Voter turnout at election 'unlikely to bounce back'

12 February 10 00:06 GMT

By Alison Park
Research Director, National Centre for Social Research

Figures seem to suggest that people have fallen out of love with politicians. There are a number of reasons why, but what could they mean for voter turnout at the general election in 2010?

Turnout has always varied from one general election to the next. However, the last two general elections were particularly notable for their low levels of turnout, with 59% of the electorate voting in 2001 and 61% in 2005 (compared with more than 70% in every election between 1922 and 1997).

Unpredictable result

A common reason given for the low turnout in 2001 was that the result was seen as a foregone conclusion; with a second Labour landslide seemingly inevitable, it simply was not worth voters going to the polls. Even in 2005 a Labour victory was never really in doubt.

But in 2010 the result is less obvious; despite the Conservatives' current lead in the polls, it is not clear that this will translate into a Commons majority and there continues to be talk of a hung parliament.

This uncertainty over the result could well boost turnout by making people feel that their vote might make a difference.

Of course, uncertainty over the result will only have an impact on whether someone votes if they actually care who wins and think it will make a real difference to how Britain is run.

Indistinguishable parties

Another reason for the low turnout in recent elections is that New Labour's move to the political centre in the 1990s has led to voters thinking there is relatively little difference between the two main parties.

In 2005, NatCen's British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) found that slightly more than two in five people (44%) thought there was "not much difference" between the Conservatives and Labour, nearly four times the proportion (12%) who thought this in 1992.

It remains to be seen whether the parties' election campaigns can convince the voters that there is more of a difference between them today, although disagreements over the need for spending cuts might be a start.

Even with feelings against the current government running high, unless people feel the Conservatives offer a real alternative this may not be sufficient to persuade them to turn out.

Expenses scandal

Turnout this time around might also be affected by the fallout from the MPs expenses scandal.

Trust in government and politicians has fallen sharply; the latest British Social Attitudes survey found in 2009 that 16% of people trusted the government to put the needs of the country above those of their party "all" or "most of the time", nearly half the proportion (29%) who did so in 2007.

It is not clear how this will affect turnout, especially because trust tends to increase in the run up to an election.

It is possible that in some areas anger at politicians and the chance to unseat an unpopular incumbent may boost turnout - but on the other hand, voters who are disillusioned are more likely to stay at home on election day.

Not duty-bound

Turnout is also influenced by underlying attitudes toward politics and voting, and people certainly appear to be less committed to the act of voting than they once were.

Traditionally, even people with little interest in the outcome of a particular election would vote because they felt it was their civic duty to do so.

But in 2009, 58% thought that everyone has a "duty to vote", down from 68% in 1991, and 18% said they thought that it wasn't really worth voting, up from 8% in 1991.

Declining loyalty

There has also been a decline in people's commitment to particular political parties.

When BSA began in 1983 only 13% of people said they didn't identify with any party; this is now the case for around one in four people (27%).

This affects turnout, because people who see themselves as party supporters can usually be relied upon to vote out of a sense of loyalty and belonging - if fewer people feel this way, turnout will be lower.

We cannot, however, blame low turnout on declining interest in politics. Although around a third of people (33% in 2009) have "little" or "no interest" in politics, this figure has remained remarkably stable over the past 20 years.

'Uncompetitive' elections

In the last general election just 37% of 18 to 24 year olds voted, a far lower rate than that found among any other age group.

This is not a new phenomenon; young people have always been less likely to vote than their elders.

More worrying is the fact that today's young people are not only less likely to vote than older groups, they are also less likely to vote than people of the same age 20 years ago.

It is possible that, having entered the electorate at a time when elections seemed dull and uncompetitive, many new voters remain unconvinced about why they should bother to cast their ballot.

And having failed to acquire the habit of voting early on they are less likely to do so in the future.

These sorts of long term changes in people's underlying attitudes to voting mean that, whatever happens in the run up to the next election, we are unlikely to see turnout bounce back to the levels we saw before 2001.

However, the decline in turnout is not irreversible.

Given the right stimulus - such as a closely fought election that presents voters with the prospect of a change in government - we could well see voters start to return to the polls in 2010.

The British Social Attitudes survey is conducted annually by the National Centre for Social Research. Results for 2009 are based on interviews with 3,421 people conducted June-Nov 2009.

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