UK voter turnout for the past 50 years or so has been in a steady but relatively gentle decline…. well, that was up until the 1997 General Election, where it proceeded to tumble rather more rapidly with turnout eventually falling to around the 60% mark by 2001/2005 elections.
So, what’s in store for us this time around?
Stats from House of Commons Research Papers 01/54 & 05/33 Courtesy of ukpoliticalinfo
This year’s televised leaders’ debates have gone some way to pique public interest in the 2010 UK Election, with the Electoral Commission reporting a spike in voter registration form downloads as the registration deadline approached. This may well have been related to interest sparked by the debates; yet it remains difficult to know whether that indication of intent will be transformed into a corresponding spike in votes at the polling stations later today.
Yet even if turnout does increase this time around, would a spike in the chart above really indicate that the public have re-engaged in democratic politics in a meaningful way and that we are back on track to a healthy democracy?
I’m not convinced. There are a number of trends that may well continue to influence political engagement beyond the 2010 turnout stats; spike or no spike.
Patrick Dunleavy, Chris Gilson and David Sanders over at LSE have commented on a couple of key long term trends which we ought to be paying more attention to, albeit perhaps after the 6th May when everything has calmed down a bit… These include the following points:
1. Over the longer term, people simply do not identify with parties the way they used to.
Stats from LSE election experts blog R.Sanders
2. A significant proportion of younger people consistently aren’t voting, or feeling a duty to vote.
I’d also add two further points to those;
3. There appears to be some indication of a hardening of the cynicism and distrust with which people view politicians (post-expenses scandal), as evidenced in the latest edition of the Hansard Society’s excellent ongoing Audit of political engagement* .
4. In relation to all of the points above, there seems to be what you might term a lack of relevance of Parliament to people’s every day lives. As Hansard Society Chair, Peter Riddell points out;
‘the main challenge for Parliament may be to show its relevance’… yet… ‘ there is little public interest in the various political reform proposals debated by MPs, think tanks and the media.’
I know I can certainly think of a few things I’d rather do on my day off than get involved in political reform initiatives, and I actually like that sort of thing.
If citizens and Parliament are to re-engage beyond May 6th then there is a need for more meaningful, longer term relationships to be built from both sides.
The kind of trust required to acheive this kind of attitudinal shift takes time and effort to build, and I’m not sure how much time and energy any members of parliament will have left over for the democratic deficit after dealing with the deficit.
However, that said, there’s one thing I’m hoping for on May 6th, and that’s a statistically significant spike… so to speak.
*Point of information, I'm featured in one of the Audits - but which year was it? Answers on a postcard to me please... first prize.... £10 book voucher (with which to buy your own hard copy of said audit)