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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 22:48 GMT
Why bother?

The BBC's political editor Andrew Marr looks at voter apathy. Are the predictions of low turn out well founded or will the electorate prove the pundits wrong?

You get used to odd looks from politicians.

Glares, the day after you've been disobliging on the telly. Patronising smirks from people you have failed to nail. Pitying shakes of the head from MPs you have known for years who thought that the piece the previous night was an all-time low.

But in the run-up to this election, I've had gapes, dropped jaws and gusts of laughter.

The reason is that I have been hurriedly changing from my suit to jeans and T-shirt, with bomber jacket and back again.

A semi-naked Marr was seen in the gardens by the House of Lords, stripping shirts on and off, to whoops from a bus of elderly female tourists.

Eventually, the chairman of the Conservative Party, Michael Ancram, was moved to stop me in the street and gently ask what the hell I was up to.


Are all politicians all the same?

He was only mildly disconcerted by the answer, which was that I was making a short film for BBC1, 'Why Bother', asking whether this general election, into which I was about to pour so much sweat, sleeplessness and mental effort, really mattered at all?

The idea was to divide the official, on-duty Marr in tie and suit, from a more sceptical, ordinary Marr in ordinary clothes, heckling him.

Viewers will have to decide for themselves whether it was worth making; but the issue is certainly worth discussing.

Here are a few raw facts which don't appear in the film. Since 1992, there has been a slump in turnout for all kinds of election - national, local, European.

Among the lowest low points were the Leeds Central by-election of 1999 (19.6% turnout) and the English local elections of the previous year, when fewer than 29% voted.

Labour's 1997 landslide happened with the lowest general election turnout since 1935. Yet before that election, far higher proportions of people said they were certain or likely to vote than this time round.

We may be heading for the lowest turnout since the chaotic, unusual election of 1918 which was not, by modern standards democratic at all, since no women could vote.

So yes, this could be the lowest general election turnout in British democratic history.


Most pundicts predict low voter turnout

The reasons are easy to spot.

Fewer of us identify with political parties. Politics, as the expression of state power, matters less in a time when war seems a remote possibility, when privatisation has pulled the state out of more of the economy and when the market power of big companies shapes our lives so strongly.

Though there are still big differences between the parties - which I argue in the film are underestimated by many people - they seem nearer than in the old days of 'socialist' against 'capitalist'.

And of course many issues which do get people going, from fox-hunting to gay rights, withdrawal from Europe to embryo research, don't fit neatly into the pattern of the big-party contest.

So what? Turnout could fall a lot further from the 71.4% of 1997 before it reaches the average in the US over the past 40 years, of just 54%.

Maybe low interest in politics is the sign of a happy, stable society with less on its mind?

Maybe it is the people's way of stopping the politicians from getting unbearably pompous?


Some issues such as hunting do stir public passions

There is something in that. But as turnout levels fall, the danger of our political system getting hijacked by small, vocal, well-organised groups who don't represent the majority, grows.

An instability enters the system, even if in the long term it may be self-correcting.

More important still, since we are part of a highly developed social world, living inter-connected lives, a full sense of ourselves must surely involve some public thinking, some wider social views and choices - in short, some politics, however brief.

Or are we simply becoming a nation of shoppers?

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