This is a little foray into modern British parliamentary history (not something you’ll find me writing about very often). There is a current story about British general elections and political culture more generally: that there has been a substantial decline in election turnouts in recent decades, representing growing disaffection and apathy about politics.
But I was looking at a graph of turnout since World War II a few days ago. Here is a version of it, accompanied by a text that asserts “the long term trend in voter participation has been downwards”.
Except that it hasn’t (although much of the analysis in that web page is well worth reading). Look at that graph properly. It creates an optical illusion because there is a very high turnout almost at the beginning, in 1950 and 1951, and a very low turnout at the very end in 2001. Take out those three, and the turnout fluctuates between the low and high 70s with no discernible ‘trend’ at all. The 1997 turnout is at the low end of the range, but it isn’t really abnormal.
OK, I thought: the 1945 turnout might be an aberration at that time, because of wartime disruptions, and the 1950/51 results could reflect a more normal level of turnout from the first half of the 20th century. (Although that would mean that the fall in voter turnout happened several decades earlier than supposed, in the mid 1950s, and then stabilised. Still a quite different picture, don’t you think?)
So I hunted down some statistics for the whole of the 20th century (Page 20 of this pdf file; if anyone knows of a more easily accessible online version of the graph, let me know).
Well, the highest turnout of the century was 86.8% in 1910. The lowest was during the First World War (a very similar percentage to that of 2001). Apart from that, the turnout at almost every general election was somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent.*
I don’t know how other types of election would compare. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, for example, turnout at local elections (county councils and the like) really has nosedived in recent decades. The 2001 turnout is definitely not something to be complacent about; along with the low 1997 figure, it might prove to be an indicator of a worrying future pattern (it seems likely that turnout will be significantly higher this time around, anyway). But it is not the latest lowpoint in an established ‘decline’.
Update (6 May)
Turnout (with a handful of results to come): 61.2 per cent. That’s only a couple of percentage points up on 2001, and clears up the question in the paragraph above. This is bad news for democracy.
But it still needs to be said: this has not been a long-term decline, as so many commentators keep telling us. Quite dishonestly sometimes, with selective use of a few results – starting of course with the 1950 high, but without pointing out that it was unusually high even at the time. (This sort of public abuse of statistics is one of the many, many reasons why everyone should read this book.) The point is that a steady long-term decline and a sharp fall within a short period of time demand different kinds of analysis – and probably different solutions.
I don’t think that the problem is down to simple ‘spin’ or media negativity, or the unpopularity of politicians (show me a time when they haven’t been unpopular, going back to the Whigs in the early eighteenth century – an unpopularity that was also not unrelated to warmongering). The problem is the lack of a genuine opposition to the government. I don’t mean simply mistrusting the Tories, not thinking the Lib Dems are up to it, and so on: I mean clear differences – policies and philosophies – between parties that people can ally themselves with and equally, of course, against. “What’s the point? They’re all the same anyway.”
(* I haven’t forgotten that this is in the context of an expanding voting population: less than 7 million in 1900, almost 44 million in 1997.)