The abstentionist elephant in the room

No one wants to talk about the problem of turnout this time — perhaps because they no longer care if millions of ‘bigots’ and proles don’t vote.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

There is feverish speculation about how many people will vote for each party in Thursday’s UK election. But it seems nobody wants to ask the other big question: how many will bother voting for anybody? Whatever the voter turnout finally turns out to be, the virtual silence on the problem of abstentionism beforehand is another sign of the yawning gap between the new political class and the electorate.

Partly it suggests that the political and media elites are now so out-of-touch with normal people that they seriously believe the rest of us are as hysterically over-excited as they are about those boring televised leaders’ debates, and that turnout must soar as a consequence. In this, as in much else, they are in denial about the real state of parliamentary democracy.

More importantly, however, the near-silence about turnout suggests that the elites are now so alienated from and contemptuously fearful of the masses, that maybe they are not all that keen on encouraging everybody to vote anymore.

The party leaders all want to mobilise what relatively little remains of their loyal core vote. Yet there are other sections of the electorate – the young, the disaffected, the worse-off sections of the working class and the generally unpredictable – whom they are not really talking to at all. No politician would ever admit as much of course. But do you get the feeling that they would rather some of us didn’t vote these days?

Falling turnout in major elections has been a growing problem in the UK and across the West in recent years. In Britain, the political decay that has often been discussed on spiked, with the demise of ideologies and party loyalties on both the old left and right, has been reflected in the voting figures.

Turnout in UK general elections reached its post-war peak as far back as 1950, when an impressive 83.9 per cent of the electorate voted in one of the closest-ever contests. Turnout in elections generally remained at well over 70 per cent until the 1990s; in the close-run elections of February 1974 (the last one to produce a hung parliament) and 1992 it touched 78.8 per cent and 77.7 per cent respectively.

After that, however, turnout figures took a decided turn for the worse. Tony Blair’s New Labour ‘landslide’ in 1997 was won on a turnout of 71.4 per cent, the lowest since before the Second World War, meaning that the superstar Blair received fewer actual votes than the Tory grey man John Major had in 1992. When Blair was easily re-elected in 2001, turnout slumped to just 59.4 per cent, the lowest since 1918. Last time around in 2005, turnout rose only slightly to 61.4 per cent, still by far the lowest in the modern era apart from 2001.

What is more, New Labour’s third election victory in 2005 was achieved with just 35.3 per cent of the votes that were cast. On a turnout of 61 per cent, that mean’s Blair won the support of less than 22 per cent of the total potential electorate. Such was the ‘democratic mandate’ he handed on to Gordon Brown in 2007, who of course did not bother trying to win any votes at all before assuming office.

Over the past decade, the political and media elites have made concerted efforts to address the problem of electoral abstentionism. They have endlessly and self-righteously lectured the public about the dangers of ‘apathy’, about the civic duty to vote and the sacrifices others made to win and defend democracy. There have been all manner of proposals and experiments for how to make the technical process of voting easier, from promoting postal votes to holding elections on Saturdays or putting polling booths in supermarkets. And there have been high-profile celebrity campaigns calling on voters to ‘Stop the BNP’ by voting for anybody else, or particularly encouraging young people to turn out for the first time, notably the ‘Rock the Vote’ music circus.

In all of these technocratic responses to the democratic crisis and complaints about voter “apathy” it never seemed to occur to the political class that the problem might be many people could not see anything much worth voting FOR.

What is more striking this time around, however, is the lack of discussion about the problem of electoral turnouts. Mass abstentionism has become the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about – despite the fact that, even if turnout is slightly up, the ‘Apathy Party’ is on course once more to win over a far larger section of the electorate than any of the leading contenders. Indeed, if there has been any discussion of turnout to date, it has been about there being too many postal votes cast in this election due to alleged voting frauds.

So what is going on, and why doesn’t anybody want to face up to the problem? There are three possible factors at work, all of which look like different symptoms of the isolation and insularity of the new political oligarchy in the UK.

The first possible factor is that the navel-gazing media and political classes are so alienated from the public that they seriously believe everybody is as over-excited as they are about this close-fought election, and especially those ‘historic’ televised debates between the main party leaders. Thus turnout is bound to soar as a consequence. They may turn out be right about that, but there is little evidence to support such a rosy view of a politics-free election campaign which has made little impact on the public and does not appear to be taking place at all outside of the media world.

Take those TV debates. Before they began there was a consensus that the audiences would be very big. A day before the first one took place on ITV, it was reported that 21million were expected to tune in to watch Brown, Tory leader David Cameron and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats – the sort of numbers only normally seen for big England matches in the World Cup, topping even the final of Britain’s Got Talent. And at the same time it was widely assumed that the third and final debate, taking place only a week before polling day and
broadcast on the BBC – traditionally the place where most Brits watch national events – would pull an even bigger audience.

In the event, the first debate on ITV averaged just over nine million viewers, well under half the predicted total. Nobody wanted to mention this inconvenient fact, instead proclaiming in wonder that the ‘historic’ debate had actually managed to outdo a single episode of the ITV soap Coronation Street. Two weeks later, the ‘climactic’ third debate on the BBC, initially predicted to pull in a lot more than the 21million expected to watch on ITV, ended up with 8.4million viewers – a million fewer than the ITV warm-up act. What is more, the quarter-hour breakdown of the viewing figures shows that, as the BBC debate moved towards its big finish, fewer and fewer were still watching with each passing 15 minutes. Again, nobody wanted to talk about any of this. But any notion that the sight of three men in suits alone would be enough to galvanise public enthusiasm for this election looks like wishful thinking.

If that first possible factor in the non-debate about turnout this time shows the elite guilty of unattached naivety about how gullible the public might be, the other two reveal it is more guilty of contemptuous cynicism towards voters.

The second possible factor is the stagnation of New Labour and its loss of any remaining dynamism, especially in appealing to younger people. It was surely more than mere coincidence that most of the pop stars and celebrities involved in initiatives such as Rock The Vote in the past have been Labour Party supporters. Their ostensibly non-party appeal to the nation’s youth to vote, using issues such as racism and the environment, was more like a thinly disguised appeal to young radicals to support Labour. The political stagnation of New Labour, however, and the loss of any dynamic behind it, means that there is even less basis on which to make such an appeal today. Students vox-popped during the ‘Cleggmania’ phase of the election campaign have seemed, if anything, more taken with the Lib Dems, while working-class youth are often the most disaffected from the mainstream. In which case, why would New Labour and its remaining celeb supporters go out of their way to campaign for young people to vote, when they cannot be sure who they might vote for? Youff apathy rools, dood!

This leads us to the third and most important potential factor in the lack of discussion about turnout this time around: the possibility that the parties do not mind too much if millions of voters don’t vote in the election.

The election campaign has been conducted for the most part within the sterile bubble of the media, discussing safe questions. But the smiley mask slipped in Gordon Brown’s Bigotgate blunder, revealing the fear and loathing which New Labour feels for large sections of the electorate. And if anything the Tories and Lib Dems are worse, with deep-seated prejudices about the working class.

At a time when the isolated elites have no notion what we are thinking and their experts have no clue who many people might vote for given a choice, why should they want to encourage millions of unreliable proles to decide their fate? The ruling class of a society such as Britain have always had an ambiguous attitude towards mass democracy, anxious about the consequences of unleashing it yet needing public endorsement to bolster their own authority.

Today, however, there are no longer mass movements demanding democratic reform or social change. Under less political pressure as a result, the new elites may feel more able to ignore large sections of the electorate and try to conduct elections as a private affair of the ‘respectable’ electorate. Something like this has long been the case in the USA, where as a rule most working-class people don’t vote, the major parties don’t bother trying to stir them up, and politics largely remains the preserve of the middle classes. We might now be witnessing the “Americanisation” of British elections in a way that goes far beyond televised debates between the candidates.

What impact any of this will have on actual turnout remains to be seen. It is always possible that all the emphasis on the closeness of the election will bring out some more voters. But there is unlikely to be any mass upswing, given the dominant anti-politics mood of the country – there is an inherent contradiction in trying to mobilise an anti-political movement.

What is different this time, however, is that the new political elite seems rather less bothered that millions might not bother to vote for them – just so long as such people don’t take to the streets, Greek-style, and instead leave them to get on with governing unmolested by the great un-lobbied.

The consequence of this semi-detached, non-political campaign is that in real political terms voting means little more than non-voting. Most of those who do passively bother to go out and vote on Thursday will be little more engaged with politics than those who ‘apathetically’ stay at home. That is why spiked’s campaign to Re-Enfranchise the Electorate has been about something far more important than the technical act of putting a cross in an empty box – or not.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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