Political circus fails to attract the big crowds

November 30, 2001

Turnout at the general election went into a tailspin. Can anything be done to reverse it? asks Ivor Gaber.

When I worked on ITN's general election programme on June 7, the night's most exciting moment came when we realised that the turnout was going to be even lower than that of the gloomiest forecast. For decades, turnout had been fairly consistent at about 75 per cent. Then, in 1997, despite the excitement of ejecting an unpopular Conservative regime, turnout fell to just over 70 per cent. In this year's election, it was 59 per cent.

The situation is even worse than it initially appears. Voting is a learnt behaviour - and if it is not learnt early, it tends not to be learnt at all. This year, about 38 per cent of registered 18 to 25-year-olds bothered to vote. As young people tend to be less likely than others to register, true turnout among this group was probably about 25 per cent.

It is unlikely that this cohort's turnout will ever reach the same levels as its predecessors'. Fiddling with the electoral system by offering Sunday voting and postal ballots will have only a marginal impact. The problem is people's lack of interest in the political system.

Opinion poll research tells us little about why the propensity to vote has gone into a tailspin. It is one thing to ask people how they intend to vote, but it is a different matter entirely to ask them why they did not bother.

The British Election Study is the largest and most authoritative study of the voting behaviour of the British public. Researchers at Essex University are still crunching statistics from their 2001 research. So far they have few clues as to why voter turnout has tumbled.

They have measured propensity to vote against many factors - including the traditional ones of gender, age, class and geographical location - but have come up with no trends that show significant changes from previous elections. They have looked at political factors such as the closeness of the local contest - but again, the figures reveal no significant changes.

Paul Whiteley, also a professor at Essex, directs an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project that seeks to investigate how far people participate in politics in a broad sense and to see if this gives insights into voting behaviour. He has identified four factors.

The first concerns issues. He argues that it is possible to see a correlation between people's willingness to vote and how they feel about a campaign's main issues. He suggests that the hostility of some traditional Labour voters to its health and education policies probably played a role in keeping them out of polling stations.

The second factor is the public perception of leaders. Whiteley claims that a strong like or dislike of party leaders is a major motivation to vote. He says data from 2001 show an overall lack of strong feelings about Tony Blair and William Hague.

The third factor is depth of party loyalty. People's attachment to the main parties has fallen steadily for 20 years, so fewer and fewer voters feel driven to vote by party loyalty.

Finally, Whiteley believes that the parties' local campaigning can play a major role in mobilising voters. The 2001 campaign generated little grassroots enthusiasm. Turnout was higher in marginal seats - it always is - but there were fewer marginals. The fact that the result was a foregone conclusion did not help.

What is to be done? In the short term, more research. In the longer term, the solution lies with politicians and the media.

The BBC held a conference this week to discuss how to make politics more attractive to young voters. It is part of a larger review, headed by Newsnight editor Sian Kevill, but the two big problems it faces fall largely outside her remit.

First, it is not that young people dislike the BBC's political coverage - they do not see it in the first place. They are serial "news avoiders". The Independent Television Commission's research into election coverage reveals that 49 per cent of the 16 to 34-year-olds they interviewed switch the television off when political news appears. Making programming more attractive to young viewers can result in only marginal improvements.

The second problem confronting the BBC review is the possibility that low turnout in the 2001 election was due to disappointment over Labour's inability to deliver on the big issues and a feeling that there was no alternative. This would suggest that there is such a thing as "politics" and that voters, young and old, are not as stupid as they are occasionally assumed to be.

There is emerging evidence that we are now reaping the harvest sown 20 years ago by Margaret Thatcher and her entourage, and followed by Labour. When you treat the electorate as marginal, by creating a political discourse in which presentation substitutes for policy and tomorrow's headlines are more important than next year's policies, problems will follow. As the media's process of dumbing down - code for de-politicisation - gains momentum, there are too few voices calling politicians to account. It is a pernicious vortex in which the inhabitants of the Westminster village continue spinning themselves into ever-deeper holes, into which the electorate can only peer in horror, before shrugging their shoulders and walking away.

Ivor Gaber is a journalist and broadcaster and professor of journalism (emeritus) at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He and Steven Barnett wrote The Westminster Tales : The 21st Century Crisis in Political Journalism , published by Continuum.

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