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Tuesday, 5 June, 2001, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK

A strong case of election apathy

By BBC News Online correspondent Peter Gould

Estimates suggest that voter turnout at the 2001 general election fell to 58% - the lowest level of popular participation for such an event in more than 80 years.

The lowest turnout so far has been recorded in the safe Labour constituency of Liverpool River, where just 34.1% of the electorate voted - a massive drop of 17.5% on 1997.

Voting in a general election is something we usually have the chance to do only once every four or five years.

The result has an impact on all our lives, not just in terms of how much we pay in taxes, but the policies adopted on key issues such as health, education, transport and the environment.

So why do so many of us fail to exercise our democratic right?

Highest turnout in 1997

  • Mid Ulster
  • Brecon & Radnorshire
  • Stirling
  • Wirral South
  • Monmouth 80.5%
    Democratic right

    The last election in 1997 saw Labour returning to power after 18 years of Conservative rule. Tony Blair's landslide victory drastically changed the political map of Britain. Yet only 71.5 per cent of the electorate voted.

    That sounds quite high compared with some local and European elections. But it was still the lowest turnout at any general election since 1935.

    In all, 12 million people couldn't be bothered to vote.

    The political parties are worried about what has become known as "voter apathy". Labour warned its supporters that failing to vote on polling day could cost the party dozens of seats.

    Lowest turnout in 1997

  • Liverpool Riverside 51.6%
  • Manchester Central 51.7%
  • Hackney North & Stoke Newington 52%
  • Sheffield Central 53%
  • Leeds Central 54.2%
    Some observers believe that voters have become disillusioned with party politics, and are sceptical about the ability of politicians to deliver on their promises. Allegations of "sleaze" are said to have increased public cynicism.

    Turnout turn-off

    So is that why elections are a turn-off for many voters?

    Looking back to 1997 may provide a few clues. According to the voting figures, the most apathetic place in the country was the constituency of Liverpool Riverside.

    It is an area with a history of high unemployment and poverty, and the turnout was just 51.6 per cent.

    To put it another way, almost half of those entitled to vote stayed at home.

    The constituency runs along the Mersey, from the boundary with Bootle in the north, to the more affluent district of Aigburth in the south.

    At its heart is Liverpool city centre, with its two cathedrals and the redeveloped Albert Dock.

    It also includes Toxteth, the scene of riots in 1981, and the traditional terraced streets of Dingle, made famous in the BBC TV comedy series Bread.

    Given the array of social problems, the people here need a political voice. Yet it seems that in deprived areas like Riverside, people are less likely to vote than those who live in more affluent parts of the country.

    Voting trends

    In his office at Liverpool University, political scientist Dr Neil Gavin questions whether the recent decline in voting represents a long-term trend.

    He points to figures for the post-war period which show marked fluctuations in the turnout from one election to the next. A downturn one year has often been followed by an increased turnout in the next campaign.

    This suggests that levels of voting are not just about demographics, but also about the way people view elections at a particular time.

    Dr Gavin believes there are two factors which may reduce the turnout. If people think there is little difference between the main parties on the important issues, they may decide it doesn't really matter who gets in.

    National turnout 1997

  • Total electorate: 43,846,152
  • Voted: 31,286,284
  • Didn't vote: 12,559,868
  • Turnout: 71.5%
    So at a time when politicians are fighting over the centre ground, voters may be less inclined to vote than at an election where there are sharp differences in ideology.

    Or, if one party is so far ahead in the opinion polls that the result appears to be a foregone conclusion, they may assume that their vote won't make a difference, one way or the other.

    Despite the low turnout in 1997, the Labour candidate in Riverside secured 70 per cent of the vote, and the constituency is regarded as one of the party's safest seats.

    Either way, according to this theory, voters make a choice to stay at home.

    Turnout in General Elections

  • 1918: 58.9%
  • 1922: 71.3%
  • 1924: 70.8%
  • 1927: 76.6%
  • 1931: 76.3%
  • 1935: 71.2%
  • 1945: 72.7%
  • 1950: 84.0%
  • 1951: 82.5%
  • 1955: 76.7%
  • 1959: 78.8%
  • 1964: 77.1%
  • 1966: 75.8%
  • 1970: 72.0%
  • 1974 (Feb): 78.7%
  • 1974 (Oct): 72.8%
  • 1979: 76.0%
  • 1983: 72.7%
  • 1987: 75.3%
  • 1992: 77.7%
  • 1997: 71.5%
    Voter fatigue

    Whatever the reasons, the government is concerned about "voter fatigue" and is trying to make it easier for people to take part in the democratic process. Postal voting is being encouraged, and homeless people are now entitled to vote.

    Experiments have been carried out at local elections with mobile ballot boxes, electronic voting, and extended hours for polling stations, including weekend voting.

    But the greatest impact on turnout appears to have been in areas where the election was conducted entirely by postal votes.

    Longer term, there is the possibility of voting by telephone, with each voter being given a special number on their polling card that would enable them to make their choice and retain their anonymity.

    And there's the prospect of voting online via the Internet - the ultimate in e-democracy.

    But so far there has been no move to copy countries like Australia where voting is regarded as a civic duty, and failing to take part in an election can result in a fine.

    Here we still have the right not to vote, if we so choose, and forcing people to go to the polling station could lead to resentment.

    So the challenge facing the politicians is how to get people more engaged in the political process, so that they want to exercise their right to vote.

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