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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK

Hannan's Call to Order

Veteran BBC political broadcaster Patrick Hannan reflects on the first general election of the new millennium.

This is clearly a case for Sherlock Holmes.

Only the penetrating genius of the great sleuth can unravel the central mystery posed by the general election.

He's done this kind of thing before, you will recall, in the case that involved the curious incident of the dog in the night time.

Watson was baffled, as usual. "The dog did nothing in the night time," he said.

Pressing matters

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

The fact that the dog didn't bark was the significant factor.

So too, in the election, was the voter not voting. And although we'll spend the next days and weeks attending to pressing matters like the leadership of the Conservative Party, a central question of democracy will eventually insist on being answered: why couldn't people be bothered?

Something like four people in 10 didn't bother to go to the polls - despite the fact that a new system of postal voting made it easier than ever.

Popular opinion

It was the lowest turnout since 1918. The UK average of just under sixty per cent was more than 12% lower than the figure in 1997.

Suddenly that much derided turnout of 50% in the Welsh Assembly referendum looks rather more convincing as an expression of popular opinion.

There are plenty of instant reasons available for the large-scale abstention.

Opinion polls, which turned out to be consistently accurate, persuaded people that their vote didn't really matter. Predictions of a Labour landslide turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Important influences

Then again, all those key economic indicators that often determine the public view of governments - things like unemployment and inflation rates - made voters comfortable the existing regime.

More disturbing was the idea that, in any case, the election result wouldn't really make much difference, particularly because many of the most important influences on our lives are international events and the decisions of global corporations.

For such reasons, and in an age of devolution, it's now possible that people will pay more attention to another area of the democratic process rather than Parliament.

It's clear that, as many people suspected, what is emerging in Wales (and in Scotland too, for that matter) is two-tier politics: a clear distinction between voting patterns for assembly elections and those for Westminster.

Definite distinction

It can be seen in particular in the performance of Plaid Cymru. The party is reasonably pleased with its performance: four seats (won one, lost one) and more than 14% of the popular vote.

Plaid won't sniff at that, but in the assembly elections two years ago the party got more than 28% of the vote and ended up with 17 seats.

It seems to me that the difference between those results shows the way in which the public are making a definite distinction between what goes on in Cardiff Bay and what goes on in Westminster.

It also shows that they are by no means glued to any particular party allegiance and will switch if it suits them. The way in which they vote is changing, perhaps the most important thing is that they should do the actual business of voting.

Giant rat

There is one other thing. The decision by the Leader of the Opposition to resign within hours of the result confirms the existence of the Curse of Cathays Park which I have already chronicled here.

Mr Hague's personal disaster underlines the fact that virtually no-one improves his political career after being Welsh Secretary.

Why should this be? As Sherlock Holmes said of the case of the giant rat of Sumatra, that is a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

Patrick Hannan's weekly political programme, Call to Order, is live on Radio Wales, 93-104FM, 882 and 657AM, and DSat channel 867.

You can also listen to BBC Radio Wales live online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/live/rwv5.ram.

e-mail: order@bbc.co.uk



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