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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 13:14 GMT
Turnout: A crisis of democratic withdrawal?

David Cowling

Voting has never been a game that everyone plays.


Labour can afford 4,000 of its supporters to stay at home in Bootle where its majority is 74.4%, but not 400 to stay at home in Milton Keynes North East where its majority is 0.5%

The biggest turnout in a general election since 1929 - when the full universal franchise came into effect - was 83.9% in 1950.

The drama of May 1997 diverted attention from the fact that turnout was the lowest since 1935 - with 2.3 million fewer votes cast compared with 1992.

And since then unprecedented numbers of voters have stayed away from European, local council and Westminster by-elections:

  • The May 1998 English local elections saw turnout figures plunge to an all-time low of 30%.

  • Turnout in the European Parliament elections in June 1999 was 23.4%

  • On the same day the Westminster constituency of Leeds Central recorded the lowest turnout, 19.6%, in a peacetime by-election for over 80 years.

    Pilot schemes

    Such was the government's concern that it encouraged local councils to run pilot schemes in the May 2000 local elections.

    David Cowling
    David Cowling: Analysing Labour's fears
    These included voting in supermarkets, early voting, weekend voting, mobile voting stations, extended hours and more postal voting.

    Overall, the results were a great disappointment. The only scheme that resulted in significant increases in turnout were those few pilot wards where all voting was by post.

    The failure of the other schemes suggests that the traditional election process itself was not the cause of voters staying away from the polls.

    Damage to Labour?

    If overall turnout falls below 70% at the next election, then it will be the first time this has happened since 1918 when 57.2% of the electorate voted.

    A recent Labour party report threatening the loss of up to 60 seats if turnout fell at the next election was based on the assumption that 20% of the party's 1997 vote stayed at home whilst every other party's vote stayed the same.

    Rather unlikely, but two polls in January suggested turnout will certainly dip below 70% - perhaps to between 67-69%.

    Both Mori and ICM found Labour supporters less inclined to vote than Conservatives.

    Mori found 52% of Labour supporters certain to vote compared with 63% of Conservatives. Prior to the 1997 election similar polling found no difference in determination to vote between supporters of the two main parties.

    Threat to marginals

    Similarly, the ICM data points to potential, but not inevitable difficulties for Labour.

    Analysing 12,000 responses from polls over the previous few months they found that Labour's support was stronger in Tory seats and weaker in its own, particularly in its heartlands.

    ICM concluded that the variations revealed in its research would make little difference to the outcome if Labour's current poll lead was repeated at the election: its majority would hardly be dented.

    But if Labour's lead falls, then greater than expected losses could occur in marginal seats throughout the Midlands, the North and Scotland.

    This explains the seriousness with which Labour party managers are treating their Operation Turnout campaign.

    And the emphasis will be on marginal seats.

    Labour can afford 4,000 of its supporters to stay at home in Bootle where its majority is 74.4%, but not 400 to stay at home in Milton Keynes North East where its majority is 0.5%.

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