Is it of any consequence that turnout has fallen in recent UK elections. How might this be resolved in future? by Calum Setterington, Project Director

Over the last sixty years it is indisputable that turnout has fallen in recent UK elections, with highest turnout in General Elections at 84% in 1951 and lowest at 59.4% in 2005 (Budge et al, 2007. p.352). There are a number of consequences of falling turnout, leading to a less representative government, stemming from disengagement and misunderstanding amongst the electorate. In order to understand how this must be resolved this essay must examine the reasons for a decline in turnout which range from political scandals to excessive media coverage. Specific elections including; 1955, October 1974 and 1997 (Budge et al, 2007. P.352), have experienced significant reductions in turnout in comparison to the previous election. The elections of 1979 (Budge et al, 2007) and 2010 (UK Political Info, 2011) go against the trend, in fact, are amongst the elections with the largest increase in percentage turnout. There are a number of proposed solutions to reversing the decline including extending the franchise to younger voters (Jones et al, 2010), introducing compulsory voting (Budge et al, 2007 p.355) and the integration of social media (Brooks, 2010).

            Declining turnout can be described as a cyclical process which is of severe consequence. The process starts with the decline in percentage turnout from one election, to an increase in disengagement amongst the electorate, to increasing confusion on policy leading to less people being interested in politics, to reduced political debate in communities, which, in turn leads to a further decline in turnout. Denver (2003, p.193) argues that this can be explained by the “disengagement” and “alienation” of the electorate. The consequences of this are severe, both in the short term and the long term. Firstly, fewer people are electing our representatives; therefore our government is less representative, whereby policy will favour a smaller percentage of the electorate. Secondly, the electorate are not voting on a European level where voting has “…never been the same” (Jones et al, 2010 p.164) which is worrying a significant numbers of laws applied in the UK are devised in Europe. Thirdly, a demographic imbalance in voter turnout is clear, with only 37% of eighteen to twenty four year olds voting in 2005 (Brooks, 2010). As we go through the natural demographic shift this is worrying for democracy in the UK. Overall, these factors will ultimately lead to devaluing the democracy of the UK.

            Many in the electorate find it hard to relate to their politicians, arguing that they are not representative. Firstly, this can be seen through the percentage of MPs that are University educated in comparison to that of the electorate. In 2005, 64% of Labour MPs had a University education compared to 81% of Conservatives, whereas only 37% of the electorate had a University education (Jones et al, 2010. p.169). It is suggested the best route into politics is to be born male, white, English, have attended university, acquire a patron and be given a safe seat (Jones et al, 2010. p.170), all of which is true for David Cameron, George Osborne and William Hague. However, this is clearly not realistically possible for most members of the public, and is an example of the “alienation” Denver refers to in his assessment of the electorate.

            Between 1992 and 2001 turnout fell from 77.7% to 54.9% (Budge et al, 2007.p.352) which Park (2010) suggests can be attributed to the political parties appearing increasingly similar on policy, making it difficult for the electorate to differentiate between the parties. This is best illustrated by Labour becoming New Labour with a shift to the centre ground under Tony Blair (Denver, 2003. p.36). The consequence of this is confusion and frustration amongst the electorate, leading to a reduction in turnout.

            Membership of parties has also decreased. This is shown by the fact that in 1964 42% of the electorate could identify with parties whereas, in 2005 the figure dropped to 10% (Jones et al, 2010. p.207). Membership of parties has fallen significantly with 1950s Conservative membership at 3,000,000 yet only 200,000 members voting in the leadership contest of 2005 (Jones et al, 2007. p.207). The combination of confusion on identifying what parties stand for and declining membership links to support the argument for a crisis in conventional democracy (Jones et al, 2010. p.176) another consequence of falling turnout at UK elections.

            A common reason for not voting is that they do not feel their vote matters. A referendum in 2011 on voting reform showed a general consensus to stay with first past the post the system does have faults. First past the post is best explained as a system where the country is divided into single-member parliamentary constituencies and the winner is the candidate with the largest number of votes, whether a majority is gained or not (Jones et al, 2010. p.644). In 2001, Labour, the winning party only gained 40.7% of the vote, meaning that 59.3% of the votes returned no government positions. This can be frustrating to the electorate and lead people to believe that their votes are being wasted, which in turn may lead to them deciding not to vote next time.

            The media also have an effect on turnout and the political process where the electorate become overexposed to political events.It is argued that that British voter is, in fact, subjected to a “heavy barrage of propaganda from all major parties” (Leonard et al, 2001. p.177). In addition, Denver supports this by suggesting that television has “utterly dominated” (Denver, 2003. p.134) the electorate highlighting how excessive exposure to media coverage can in fact disengage the electorate.

            A consequence of elections too close together is voter fatigue (Dalton, 2006. p.40). Following highs of 83.6% in 1950 and 84.0% (Budge et al, 2007. p.352) in 1951 it is clear that the electorate in 1955 have become frustrated with the political system as percentage voter turnout has fallen by 7.2% (Budge et al, 2007. p.352) which is amongst the most severe drops between 1950 and 2010. This is again seen between the February 1974 and October 1974, where a minority government from February failed resulting in a drop of 8.1% in turnout (Budge et al, 2007. p.352).. Falling turnout here, can be explained as a consequence of going to the polls too often..

            Although it is clear that between 1950 and 2010 turnout declined, there have been occasions where turnout has increased marginally, suggesting that the electorate still care, and therefore the consequences of lower turnout may not be as severe as originally thought. Following the winter of discontent in 1979 turnout increased by 5.1% (Budge et al, 2007. p.352) electing Mrs Thatcher, highlighting how the electorate still wish to voice their concerns in the political arena. In 2010, two million voters more cast their ballots than in 2005 (Jones et al, 2010. p.A11) expressing their opinions over the economic situation and the MPs expenses scandal (Park, 2010).

            With knowledge of the causes and consequences of declining turnout, notably a downward spiral of declining participation, it is imperative that solutions are examined, so that consequences can be prevented from becoming an irreversible reality (Park, 2010).

            A lot of focus has been placed making it easier for voters to vote, which Budge supports (2007, p.355), reducing the ‘costs’ of voting (Denver, 2003.p.40) including polling stations in supermarkets, extending polling stations over a number of days and telephone/internet voting as well extending the number of postal votes. Denver’s argument is that these suggestions are “…merely fiddling at the edges” (2003, p.4) and whilst there are other factors, one must disagree with this statement as members of the electorate, as human beings, act to make rational decisions, and the easier it is to vote, the more likely they are to.

            A major problem is the low percentage turnout amongst the youngest members of the electorate with only 22% of students registered to vote in 2005 (Brooks, 2010)  of which only 37% voted in the 2005 general election supporting the argument that younger voters are disengaged and feel alienated (Denver p.193). The political community needs to connect with younger voters on a level that they are accustomed to, which can be achieved through social media and blogs. For example, blogs such as Political Promise (2010) and the Young Political Bloggers (2011) aim to engage more young people in politics through education, debate and discussion. Moreover, in October 2011 MPs voted to allow them to use Twitter during debates in the chamber (BBC News, 2011). Moreover, many young people cannot identify with politics or politicians and therefore, a low-cost, high access solution to this would be to include a civics programme, like that used at Repton School (2009) that would educate young people in the basics and fundamentals of governing the UK. This in turn, would hopefully increase turnout amongst our youngest in the electorate, as they would have a basic understanding so that they feel they may be in a position to make an informed decision..

            Extending the franchise to sixteen year olds (Jones et al, 2010. p.132) has been suggested in recent years. With arguments such as you can join the Army at sixteen and have sexual relationships consensually at sixteen yet why can a sixteen year old not vote? However, this alone is not a realistic solution. It is seen as a “…hopeless cause” (Brooks, 2010) when standing alone as all it would do is show lower figures of turnout, as many youngsters would not vote as they are not informed or interested. By itself this is a weak solution (Denver, 2003. p.40) and for it to be successful would need to be combined with increased political education and involvement.

            However, the issue does not solely lie with the youngest members of the electorate, many people in older age group categories are also not voting, and in increasing numbers. Analysts of turnout need to notice this, and not get sidetracked by low turnout amongst the young when putting forward solutions.

            Many argue that they do not feel represented by our representatives. Although parliament has become more representative with 22% of MPs being female (Patan, 2010) twenty out of six hundred and fifty (UK Parliament, 2010) were educated at Eton College (Patan, 2010), a disproportionate number. In order to entice greater participation the political parties should try and recruit more politicians from across society including based on gender and race.

            Despite the fact that the average MP works an average of sixty nine hours per week (BBC News, 2011) on average 67% is spent in Westminster and 33% in their constituencies (BBC News, 2011). With this is mind, it is understandable why members of constituencies feel distanced from their representatives. A solution for this is to shift the balance so that MPs can work in London, but spend more time in their constituencies making them more visible in the communities and helping the communities. If this were to become the case, then it is most likely that more people will vote in elections, based on the visibility of their politicians, removing the myth that politicians are only in the constituencies around the general election.

            Switching to a system of compulsory voting (Jones et al, 2010. p.132) is another proposed solution to reversing the decline in percentage voter turnout and in fact has been supported by former minister Geoff Hoon (Budge et al, 2007. p.355). Whilst this would increase turnout to almost 100%, voters would still have the option of spoiling their ballot paper and therefore defeat the point of compulsory voting. Therefore the issue is not in getting people to vote but getting to use their vote wisely.

            It is indisputable that turnout has fallen in recent UK elections. The consequences are severe and include continuing lower interest and participation, which if unabated could result in government becoming less and less representative, leading to a continual decline in turnout. There is no single solution to this, however extending the franchise to sixteen year olds and introducing compulsory voting would be of limited use. Instead politicians need to work on greater transparency, reinstalling trust, making campaigns more relevant and clear as well clear political education for our young people. However, this decline in turnout must be halted and reversed in order to protect the conventional democracy in the UK.


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