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What did the turnout tell us?

Messing with the voting process hasn't boosted turnout - but it has cheapened the meaning of the vote.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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At 61.3 per cent, voter turnout at the 2005 UK General Election was greeted by a worried sigh of relief by the political class. While it falls far short of the postwar average turnout of over 76 per cent, at least it was better, goes the view, than the historic trough of 59.4 per cent in the last General Election, in 2001.

But was it better? Given the amount of attention that has been paid to boosting turnout over the past four years, the blue-skies techno-thinking aimed at finding clever new ways to cajole people to vote, and the government’s alarming willingness to overhaul the voting process through introducing postal votes, despite concerns about the potential for error and corruption, turnout in this past General Election was arguably worse than four years ago.

When it turns out that all these desperate measures have in fact boosted turnout by a measly two percentage points, it’s time to face some harsh facts. Low voter turnout reflects a more fundamental disengagement from politics, which cannot be resolved simply by tweaking the form that voting takes. The attempts to boost turnout by messing with the voting process have further cheapened the meaning of the vote, helping to make the elected government seem less than legitimate, despite its comfortable majority. And those who voted seemed as disengaged from politics as those who did not, which should prompt us to think about the meaning of voting in a time of anti-politics.

The figures are stark. At 36 per cent, New Labour won the lowest share of the popular vote of any government since the Second World War. Just 22 per cent of British electors voted for the party of government. Yet the apparent lack of support for New Labour did not mean any surprises where the other parties are concerned. Thirty-three per cent voted Conservative, barely up from the 31 per cent that voted Tory in 1997 – the year of New Labour’s first landslide and the depths of the Tory crisis. The Liberal Democrats did better, skimming off some protest votes against New Labour to get 23 per cent of the vote this time – but this doesn’t even make them the new opposition party, much less ‘the REAL alternative’. (1)

If the issue were disenchantment with the mainstream political parties, we might have expected the fringe parties to make significant gains. This election proved open to the odd freak protest vote, resulting in George Galloway’s win for Respect over Labour’s Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow, for example. But in general, the fringe parties did worse than many expected.

For all the scaremongering that the despised British National Party (BNP) would make real gains in this election, the party’s share of the UK vote was 0.74 percent – well below exit poll expectations of three percent (2). The barely-more-respectable UK Independence Party (UKIP) lost its deposits by gaining less than five per cent of the vote in at least 451 seats, costing the party £225,500 (3). The scarcely-visible Green Party won 1.07 per cent of the vote, and lost its deposits in 177 seats (4). Respect triumphed in one of its key London seats, and performed embarrassingly in others – 6.4 per cent in Tottenham, and 6.8 percent in Preston – not to mention the other places where it stood candidates, such as Dorset South (0.5 per cent) and Hove (0.6 per cent) (5).

Despite the levels of disaffection among those who did vote in 2005, there was no shock factor in the ballot box. ‘The electoral landscape experienced a tremor rather than an earthquake’, wrote Times commentator Peter Riddell, and even that seems something of an overstatement (6). Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee might be proclaiming the success of her gimmicky campaign to ‘Hold your nose and vote Labour’, complete with clothes-pegs for literal-minded readers, but it seems that in the event many of the disgruntled Labour supporters left their noses alone and just voted Labour anyway (7). Or Lib Dem, or (in children’s minister Margaret Hodge’s constituency of Barking), BNP (8).

On the psephological side, there have been some interesting shifts – and some interesting constants. ‘It was women voters who…delivered a comfortable majority for Tony Blair’, argued Sir Robert Worcester, founder and chairman of the polling organisation MORI (9). Thirty-eight per cent of the women who voted gave their support to Labour, compared with 32 per cent to the Conservatives and 23 per cent to the Liberal Democrats. This is lower than the 43 per cent that voted Labour in 1997, but their continued support marks an historic shift (10).

Women have traditionally voted in a more conservative fashion than men, reflecting their relatively privatised, narrow role. It could be the increase in female employment and presence in the public sphere that has encouraged the switch in the female vote – but it seems more likely to be simply that New Labour is now the truly ‘conservative’ option, with the Tories appearing as an unpredictable risk.

Then there’s the class thing. As a useful analysis on the BBC News website explains, ‘Labour’s appeal in 1997 was across all social classes’, with Blair winning ‘a greatly increased share of the middle class vote, including a plurality over the Conservatives among lower middle class (C2) voters and home owners, while holding on to the working class vote’. Now, some data suggests that ‘Labour’s support is eroding at both ends’ (11).

In 2005, Labour received 43 per cent of the vote from the C2 group (skilled workers), down from 52 per cent in 1997, while this group’s support for the Tories rose from 28 per cent in 1997 to 32 per cent. Among unskilled workers (group DE), support for Labour dropped from 58 per cent in 1997 to 45 per cent in 2005, while the Conservatives gained 28 per cent this time round compared with 21 per cent in 1997. But if New Labour is now the natural party of government, for this political era at least, it can take comfort from the fact that its support has increased among the middle class (group AB) to 32 per cent, up from 30 per cent in 1997, while this group continues to turn away from the Tories. Thirty-seven per cent of the ABs voted Conservative this time round, compared with 43 per cent in 1997 (12).

With the Liberal Democrats widely seen as the party of ‘youth’, it is worth noting that, although they made significant gains amongst those aged 18 to 24, and those aged 25 to 34, they received less than Labour’s share of 42 per cent, and only slightly more than the Tories (26 per cent, compared with 24 per cent). Meanwhile, the most solid basis for the Conservatives’ support is dying off: 42 per cent of those aged over 65 voted Tory, more than any other age group, or social group (13).

But whoever voted for whom, the most striking feature of voting at election 2005 is the extent to which the vote has been degraded. By rolling out the postal vote, despite a recent investigation into a corruption scandal in Birmingham’s local elections in 2004 and continuing fears about the efficacy of the postal vote process, voter turnout has been scarcely boosted at a considerable cost to the legitimacy of the democratic process. The promotion of postal voting to make things ‘easier’ has ensured that many of those who did vote were as likely to be executing a technical task as exercising a democratic right.

The inefficiency and corruptibility of the system has fed into the cynicism surrounding this whole election, leading to a general sense that many people were barred from voting as a consequence, while others voted twice. The histrionics of John Humphrys, veteran presenter of BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, seemed to provide a case study of the crisis – even this switched-on, politically literate man was ‘denied a vote’, he declaimed on air, because ‘somebody has apparently allegedly applied for a postal ballot on my behalf’. It was subsequently, embarrassingly, revealed that Humphrys did receive a postal vote, for which he had himself applied three years ago (14).

As it goes, the fact that Humphrys’ complaints of election fraud have been themselves revealed as an unwitting fraud encapsulates the real crisis of voting legitimacy very well. When the widespread view is that postal voting has led to corruption and unintentional disenfranchisement, it would not matter if the reality turned out to be wonderfully efficient and squeaky clean. In an election mired in cynicism, with the political parties displaying veiled contempt for a lazy electorate and an electorate engaged in tactical ways to express its sense of being pissed off, everything will be seen as illegitimate, and open to complaint.

Sir Robert Worcester, of MORI, seems to think that the two per cent increase in turnout could be seen as a purely technical triumph: ‘Part of this could be accounted for by the increase in two-home families, whose voting inhabitants each receive two polling cards and therefore might be voting twice, and also by students registering both at home and at university. It could also be explained in part by the rise of postal voting.’ (15) Is he right? Probably. Does it matter? Sadly, given how cheap votes have become in 2005, probably not.

Read on:

Voter turnout: Size isn’t everything, by Jennie Bristow

Voting for me, me, me!, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Election 2005

(1) Who deserted Labour?, BBC News, 7 May 2005

(2) BNP sees increase in total votes, BBC News, 6 May 2005

(3) UKIP falls short of its targets, BBC News, 6 May 2005

(4) Green vote doubles in two seats, 6 May 2005

(5) Election results … Socialist Worker

(6) ‘Political pruning leaves the landscape unchanged’, The Times (London), 9 May 2005

(7) We held our noses…, Guardian, 9 May 2005

(8) If Labour doesn’t listen to its heartland voters, it will lose them, by Margaret Hodge, Observer, 8 May 2005

(9) Women’s support gave Blair the edge, Guardian, 8 May 2005

(10) Who deserted Labour?, BBC News, 7 May 2005

(11) Who deserted Labour?, BBC News, 7 May 2005

(12) Who deserted Labour?, BBC News, 7 May 2005

(13) Who deserted Labour?, BBC News, 7 May 2005

(14) Humphrys vents fury at ‘stolen’ vote, Guardian, 7 May 2005

(15) Women’s support gave Blair the edge, Guardian, 8 May 2005

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

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