Is Britain facing a collapse of democracy? As fewer and fewer people turn out to vote, Paul Whiteley outlines a nationwide programme launched to find out why
Last month's election for London's mayor - despite all the publicity surrounding the candidates - produced a turnout of only 35 per cent. Though disappointing, it was hardly an isolated example of Britain's political apathy in recent years. In the elections to the European Parliament in 1999, turnout in Britain reached a new low of 24 per cent, less than half the average for the European Union as a whole and easily the lowest of all the member states.
Turnouts in general elections have also been falling. In the 1950s they averaged 81 per cent. The figure fell to 75 per cent in the 1970s and 1980s, and reached a post-war low of 71.5 per cent in 1997. Many students of electoral politics believe that the turnout will fall below 70 per cent in the next general election.
If citizens choose not to vote in local and general elections, this could pose a serious threat to democracy in Britain. There is clearly a lot at stake in making sure that electoral participation is sustained in the future.
But why are our voters shunning the ballot-box?
Last week saw the launch of a nationwide research programme on democracy and participation under the slogan: "A health check for British democracy". If we pursue the medical analogy, there the patient definitely appears to be sick. The new research seeks to discover whether there really is a crisis of participation in Britain, and if so, why.
Political science research suggests that people vote in elections for three reasons: because they have the resources to do so; because they are motivated to do so; and because they have been asked to do so.
Resources refer to issues such as time availability, education and social integration. Motivation refers to the individual's degree of interest in politics and community affairs and the extent to which people care about the results of an election. Both of these issues are linked to levels of political knowledge. Being asked to participate means being mobilised to vote by friends and family or by political parties during the campaign.
These factors operate at both the individual and the community levels. Thus, two individuals with the same resources, motivation and levels of mobilisation, but who live in different communities, will participate to different extents depending on the characteristics of those communities.
If one town has a lot of voluntary activity, for instance, then this is likely to produce higher turnouts in elections, even if such activities have little to do with politics. Thus, a community with scout troops, stamp-collecting clubs, book-reading groups and the like will have higher turnouts than a community where people are apathetic.
One researcher, focusing on participation in Italy, suggested that the number of choral societies in a community is an excellent predictor of voting turnout. It is not difficult to see why: voluntary activity brings people together, develops their civic skills and integrates them into the community, promoting their participation in democracy.
We can get an idea of the relative importance of these three factors - resources, motivation and being asked to participate -by looking at data from the 1997 British Election Study, a national survey of 3,000 electors conducted after the general election.
Motivation was the most important factor: 82 per cent of people who had a "great deal of interest" in politics voted, compared with 38 per cent of people who had "none at all". The best predictor of voting was whether the individual cared who won the election: some 78 per cent of individuals who "cared a good deal" voted, compared with only 50 per cent of individuals who "didn't care very much".
Similarly, 82 per cent of people who identified "very strongly" with one of the political parties voted, in comparison with only 62 per cent whose identification was "not very strong".
The survey also contained a "political quiz" designed to see what citizens knew about politics. Eighty per cent of those who got all the questions right turned out to vote, compared with only 51 per cent of those who got all the answers wrong.
The strongest influence on voting associated with the individual's resources was marriage, with some 77 per cent of married people voting, compared with 62 per cent of single people.
One notable finding is that some 73 per cent of people who worked fewer than 40 hours a week voted, compared with 68 per cent of those who worked more than 50 hours. This suggests that people do not participate when they are short of time. This is a growing problem in Britain's workaholic culture.
Politicians may be particularly interested in the fact that both door-to-door and telephone canvassing influenced turnout. About 25 per cent of respondents in the survey reported being canvassed door-to-door during the campaign, and 76 per cent of them voted, compared with only 69 per cent of those not canvassed. Only 7 per cent reported being canvassed by phone, but 81 per cent of them voted.
What can we learn from all this? In my view, there are several issues that the government should confront in order to improve the potential of democracy in this country. A start has already been made on the first of these with the introduction of pilot schemes to make it more convenient to vote. Electors should be able to vote over several days, vote by post, or in supermarkets, and eventually participate via the internet.
Then there is the government initiative to introduce citizenship as part of the core curriculum in schools.
There is a clear relationship between political knowledge and participation. It might surprise THES readers to know that in 1997, 29 per cent of the electorate thought that Britain already had a system of proportional representation for Westminster elections. If citizens are ignorant about politics and government they will not be motivated to participate.
The last initiative is something for political parties to act on. Research shows that if parties can motivate activists to campaign locally, that can make a big difference to the number of votes cast. The more vigorous the local campaigning, the more likely people are to vote.
Paul Whiteley is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and director of the Economic and Social Research Council programme on democracy and participation. For details, visit: www. esrc.ac.uk/democpar.html/.