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The BBC's Roger Harrabin
analyses why the turnout was so low
 real 28k

Friday, 8 June, 2001, 05:45 GMT 06:45 UK
Voters deliver election snub
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair claimed victory early
Nick Assinder

William Hague's leadership of the Tory party is under intense pressure after Labour cruised towards a second sensational landslide election victory.

But, even as Tony Blair was celebrating his predicted runaway success, his own victory was seriously undermined with figures suggesting the number of people who bothered to vote was at an all-time low.

Turnout across the country was 10% down on 1997 and possibly as low as 58% - the worst since 1918 and confirmation that the poll had dramatically failed to engage voters.

As a clearer picture of the likely election result started to emerge in the early hours of the morning, it was evident that little could stop Mr Blair from winning his dreamed-of second term.

Tory leader William Hague
Hague will look to future
It appeared the Tories might make no advances at all on their 1997 showing, a result which would pitch them into turmoil and spark months of soul- searching and, very likely, a leadership contest.

It was even being speculated that William Hague might resign before the week was out.

But it was also plain that the Liberal Democrats were set to gain a number of seats, improving on their existing tally - already the best for a third party since the 1930s.

That was hugely good news for Charles Kennedy, whose leadership has been greatly enhanced by the results.

Get on with it

But it was Tony Blair who was accepting all the plaudits. He even appeared to pre-judge the outcome of the poll when he delivered his victor's address in his own constituency of Sedgefield at around 0130 BST on Friday morning.

After claiming it was an historic night, he said the British public had given him a clear message - that they agreed with the direction of his policies but wanted him to get on with it.

But turnout was down 10% in Mr Blair's own patch - where his majority was cut by 8,000 - and was even lower in other Labour strongholds.

And, while some ministers claimed that was partly the politics of contentment and the fact the result had been viewed as a foregone conclusion, many more feared it was a sign of disillusion and disinterest.

Mr Hague appeared to have signally failed to revive his depressed Tory party but there was, apparently, no great enthusiasm for New Labour.

The danger for Mr Blair is that, after he used his election campaign to demand a mandate from the voters so he could carry forward his programme, he had also failed.

It is possible that more people stayed at home than actually voted for Labour.

No mandate

And any suggestion that the landslide was based on overwhelming support for New Labour will be swiftly seized on by the opposition parties.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy polled big numbers
They will claim that the prime minister has no mandate but that, quite the opposite, his victory was a hollow one.

Mr Blair, however, will now swiftly move on - probably reshuffling his cabinet within hours of his victory becoming official.

Meanwhile, the inquest in the Tory party has already started, with many claiming it adopted the wrong campaign.

Critics claimed Mr Hague mishandled it by concentrating on Europe and a tit-for-tat battle on tax rather than concentrating on core issues like health and education.

Senior Tories, including possible leadership candidate Michael Portillo, insisted there should be no leadership challenge and that Mr Hague had led the best possible campaign.

It appeared possible Mr Hague might remain leader for a period, either to help the Tories regroup and find a new way forward - or to take them into the expected referendum on entry into the single currency.

Others, however, believed he might quit almost immediately to allow another leader to find his feet in time for that battle, which is certain to be highly divisive for the Tories.

But, whatever the other consequences of the 2001 election are, the disastrously-low turnout is bound to be a continuing source of dismay.

All the major political parties will feel they have to address the issue if they are not to find British politics and, as a result, democracy, collapsing into crisis.


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