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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 04:26 GMT 05:26 UK

Turnout 'at 80-year low'

The turnout in the 2001 General Election could be the lowest for more than 80 years.

As counting continued through the night, it looked as though the overall turnout could be as low as 58%.


" Turnout looks as though it is going to be lousy "
Lady (Shirley) Williams, Lib Dem

This compares with 71.6% at the 1997 General Election, which itself was the lowest turnout since the Second World War. It would be the lowest turnout since the election of 1918 when the turnout was 57%.

It seems likely that more people will fail to vote than will vote for the Labour Party, which has secured a second consecutive landslide victory.

The public apathy means that Labour may secure the support of just one in four people eligible to vote.

In Sunderland South, the first constituency in the country to declare, the turnout was just 48%.

This was lower than the turnout in any constituency at the last election.

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.

Martin Bell, the independent candidate who lost his fight for Brentwood and Ongar, said the turnout figures were "the saddest statistics of the whole election".

Politics of contentment


" We will find after the election there are loads more people who wanted a Labour victory than actually turned out to vote "
Jack Straw, Lab

The highest turnout, 71.8%, has been recorded in the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, where the Liberal Democrats held the seat.

Home Secretary Jack Straw said it was possible that the low turnout reflected the "politics of contentment".

He told the BBC: "What I have been finding on the doorsteps is that an awful lot of people are saying 'yes I am with you, of course I would turn out if it really mattered, but I think it is already won.'

"We will find after the election there are loads more people who wanted a Labour victory than actually turned out to vote.

"So the state of the moral authority will paradoxically be greater than that of the vote."

Disenchantment

However, Education Secretary David Blunkett warned that there might be a growing feeling of disenchantment with representative democracy - particularly among young people.

He said: "If we have won a majority greater than Margaret Thatcher's in 1983 we have got to rejoice and be happy, but then draw breath and decide how to engage with people."


" There are certainly absolutely no signs that this is a goverment that has successfully re-connected the people with politics "
Tony King

Leading Liberal Democrat and former Labour cabinet minister Lady Williams, formerly Shirley Williams, said that even if Labour was returned with a landslide, the party should be "disturbed" by the low turnout.

She said: "Turnout looks as though it is going to be lousy. In that case we have to say that a lot of people were not very enthusiastic about the government, but they saw its return as inevitable."

Not engaged

Conservative leader William Hague said: "It is a sobering lesson for all parties that millions of people have been reluctant to participate in this election at all."

And his party chairman Michael Ancram added: "The low turnout suggests that all the arguments have not engaged the electorate."


1997 Five worst turnouts

  • 51.6% Liverpool Riverside
  • 51.7% Manchester Central
  • 52% Hackney North & Stoke Newington
  • 53% Sheffield Central
  • 54.2% Leeds
    Political analyst Tony King said the Labour manifesto of 1997 promised re-new the public's faith in politics.

    But he said: "There are certainly absolutely no signs in the voting figures out tonight that this is a goverment that has successfully re-connected the people with politics."

    The BBC polled people who decided not to vote.

    Some 77% said there was no point in voting because it would not change a thing, while 65% said they did not trust politicians. Just over half said it was obvious that Labour would win anyway.

    Among the 18-24 age group just 38% said they planed to vote. The figure for the 25-34 group was 45%, and for the 35-64 group it was 62%.



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