No turn-ups on turnout

The attempt to plunder history for pat explanations for low turnout doesn't work. Here's why.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Tomorrow we will finally know who won this general election. Will it be New Labour – or will it be the more-feared ‘Apathy Party’, the bête noir of politicians and pundits alike?

Even before the election was called, fears of historically low turnout have dominated the discussion. Recent polls have claimed that turnout in this election may be the lowest since 1918 – an election that occurred just a month after the end of the First World War. A lower peacetime turnout than this was as far back as 1874. A particular worry has been the voting behaviour of young people: barely half of 18- 35-year olds intend to vote, compared to 80 percent of over-65s (1).

The rallying cry to get out there and use your vote has echoed across the competing parties, and across the media. Andrew Marr of the BBC produced a whole TV programme encouraging viewers to vote; AC Grayling, writing in the Guardian, has insisted that ‘every refusal to vote is an act of self-disenfranchisement in which a citizen, betraying the endeavours of history, demotes himself to a serf’ (2). The Daily Mail used its pre-election editorial to ‘urge you not to succumb to the temptations of apathy’ (3); the Mirror issued the simple plea, ‘Now vote’ (4). Labour’s ‘Operation Turnout’ reached fever-pitch in the last few days of the campaign (5).

With the pleas have come the explanations – an attempt to find some historical precedent, should turnout in this election be as low as expected. But do such explanations stand up?

— People are apathetic (lazy)

Almost every discussion refers to ‘voter apathy’, or why people ‘can’t be bothered to vote’. Grayling, like many others, suggests that we take for granted something that some people once died for. We are all, apparently, too comfortable now to realise the sacrifices made in the past.

But turnout in 1935 (71.2 percent), just seven years after universal suffrage was introduced, was lower than in 1997 (71.5 percent). The notion that larger numbers of people voted in some past elections simply because their lives were harder and their energy levels higher is nothing if not superficial.

— The result is a foregone conclusion

Some argue that the inevitable New Labour landslide means that people just don’t think it is worth voting. But if the parties were neck-and-neck, would we necessarily feel that every vote counts? It is true that two very close elections in the past 30 years have had relatively high turnouts – in February 1974 (78.7 percent) and in 1992 (77.7 percent). However, that can be balanced by the low turnout in 1970 (72.0 percent), when Edward Heath won against the trend of the opinion polls, which predicted another Labour victory. And you could not get a closer-run election than the 2000 US election, in which turnout was about as low as the US turnout ever is.

— There is no clash of ideas

Some argue that the apparent absence of major differences between the parties’ political programmes causes voting to seem pointless. Yet in 1983, when Labour had its most distinctive political programme since 1945, the turnout was lower than for any of the four consecutive Conservative victories.

— Only votes in marginal seats count

The outcome of UK general elections has never been a genuine expression of popular will. In fact, on two occasions since the war, the result has gone against the share of the vote. The Tories won in 1951 with 48.6 percent of the vote, while Labour had 49.2 percent of the vote. In February 1974 Harold Wilson won (only just) with 38 percent of the vote, compared to Heath’s 38.8 percent. The turnouts in both elections were high. And at times when parties do enjoy solid support, people turn out to vote in safe seats.


As a general rule, it seems that the only thing one can safely say about turnout is that it is difficult to explain why any particular election has a certain level of turnout. All of the above factors might have an impact on an individual’s decision to vote or not – but none is decisive.

Certainly, it is impossible to look to historical voting trends for a pat explanation as to why this election, in particular, looks set to inspire relatively few people to vote. As has been argued elsewhere on spiked, the 2001 election is characterised by many political trends that are without precedent in the UK: the massive gap that exists between parliamentary politics and the electorate; the collapse of the Conservative Party, which thrived throughout the past century as the natural party of government; the managerial character of the New Labour project, which pushes political debate further and further to the margins. Any examination of the turnout in this election means an examination of this context.

The most interesting aspect of the turnout discussion in this election is not how many people actually vote today, but why politicians and pundits have been so obsessed with turnout. Having chased political debate out of political life, on election day they face the consequences – an electorate that is more disengaged from parliamentary politics than ever, and will give, at best, a lukewarm and tacit support of the government, rather than the clear mandate New Labour so desperately wants. However many people vote in the end, it will be fun witnessing New Labour’s neurosis in the second term.

Turnouts for elections in the twentieth century

(1) Lowest turnout since 1918 forecast, Daily Telegraph 17 May 2001

(2) The last word on Voting, Guardian 12 May 2001

(3) Daily Mail, 6 June 2001

(4) Mirror, 6 June 2001

(5) See spiked-geist: Day 30

The turnout figures quoted above are taken from Twentieth-century British Political Facts by David Butler and Gareth Butler, 8th edition, published by Palgrave (10 March 2000). Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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