Is UK Election Turnout a Cause For Concern or Part of a Bigger Picture?

Election turnout in the UK has always been variable. However, Tony Blair and Labour’s win in the 2001 general election was the start of a downturn in electorate voting, with only 59 per-cent voting in that election. Furthermore, only 61 per-cent and 65 per-cent voted in the 2005 and 2010 general elections respectively. That’s not even including the harrowing data procured from local, EU and now infamous police and crime commissioner elections.

One of the main reasons behind the lacklustre results at the polling stations, is the growing opinion that there is little to no difference between the three main parties. The 2005 British Social Attitudes survey by NatCen, found that 44% of people believed there was “not much difference” between the two main parties at the time, the Conservatives and Labour. This figure was four times bigger than the proportion who thought this in 1992. In an effort to seem as appealing to a broader range of voters, and with the growing number of swing seats, parties feel it is a technique they need to adopt. However it could have the opposing effect with voters feeling there is not a real alternative to the current government, and no real chance to invoke the change they want to see, therefore abstaining from voting.

The larger problem this creates however is a group of people are now missing a political party that matches their beliefs. As party’s ideologies, policies and most importantly manifestos change and become more alike, the more left wing, libertarians do not have a major party to represent them.

Research from the Constitution Unit at University College London, found that only one in five people trust the British government to put the needs of people first rather than themselves or the needs of the party. That is compared to thirty years ago where four in ten held that trust. Events such as the expenses scandal and the student fees scandal have certainly contributed to this state of affairs. The lack of trust and confidence towards politicians in general is at an all time low with their transparency, accountability and professionalism having been truly questioned.

One of the biggest factors that affects the turnout figure, is the lack of the younger electorate, with a ComRes survey finding one in four young people are missing from the electoral register. There are several possible explanations for this bleak situation, with the most prominent being a generational change between older people and today’s youth, as well as the lack of politics within school curriculums. A survey produced by the University of York found that 92 per cent of the pensioners they questioned had voted whilst under half of new voters hadn’t. It is a trend amongst the younger generations compared to older not to feel committed to voting or completing your ‘civic duty’ as you would previously, even if you had little interest in the outcome.

It is important to consider that in today’s society, your political allegiance isn’t determined by your job or vice versa. In decades gone by for older generations, it was imperative that the miners of the 1980s for example, were strong labour supporters because it was a matter of grave importance as they were the only party not just representing your views but the longevity of your livelihood. In the modern day, the job you do and your political standpoint are most of the time two separate entities, and can go some way to pointing an answer to the possible drop of importance to younger generations of a political viewpoint.

However it seems that it is rather a lack of knowledge or teaching rather than a lack of interest which dissuading younger people from voting. Research by the charity vinspired found that 71 per-cent of young people between 16-25 want basic politics to be taught at school so they can play a bigger part within elections as well as make informed choices as to where they place their vote. Currently, politics plays a small part within the curriculum leaving many children finishing school with only a small amount of knowledge about the political system they will one day be a part of. This is having a negative effect on our future voters who feel disillusioned and uninformed rather than empowered and knowledgeable.

To add more fuel to the fire, from the same research three in four young people called on politicians to adapt the old-fashioned, archaic voting system to include text and online voting that suits the technology savvy generation, now able to vote in local elections but most importantly, the 2015 general election. They also called on politicians to incorporate them into their decision making, finding that 80 per cent of the young people surveyed care about key issues but do not feel represented in politics. So we have alienated, mis- informed and disenchanted electorate that doesn’t truly feel represented. Therefore it makes for disparaging thinking to believe that this generation will be the ones called upon to vote in future general elections where democracy could be undemocratically decided by under half the population. Is it time for pro-active plans before reactive strategies are needed?

The voting system, which although is held in high esteem by other nations is arguably one of the drawbacks for the electorate. In its current form; according to MP for Cheltenham Martin Horwood, it makes it “difficult to persuade people to vote”. When going out to the polling station is included amongst the many daily tasks and jobs families have to complete, the chances of placing your vote are reduced. When there is bad weather or rain, that motivation is almost always reduced to nil.

Furthermore, the proposed scrapping of the postal vote due to fraud will cause more damage than good. This is apparent with almost half of all votes for the aforementioned police and crime commissioner election coming from postal votes, meaning without them the result could have been far more detrimental and embarrassing. As Mr. Horwood mentions postal voting is “making things easy for people” which is the key in getting higher turnout and in turn political involvement.

Coupled with this is type of voting we employ in this country which means a majority of voters are not truly represented. With our first past the post system, votes for smaller parties become nothing but protest votes rather than legitimate, change-provoking ballots. Being a member of the Liberal Democrats (widely coined as the home of the protest vote) Martin Horwood was in favour of adopting the proportional representation method of voting and it is hard to disagree, as every vote would be included and people voting for the opposing party in a safe seat will still have their voice heard. Changing the voting method is not the golden ticket to achieving above 70 per-cent turnout as seen post-WWII, but it is certainly a motivational tool to prise the electorate out of their warm, dry houses into the cold and rain to the local sports or community centre to cast their vote.

An important factor is the world of politics that exists outside of Westminster and the shift from the conventional idea of politics and politicians. Voting in elections and becoming a member of a political party is one, its seems traditional way of participating in politics. Many have chosen instead to take to the streets, shifting away from political groups towards the pressure, lobby groups and environmental organisations. Whilst many deem themselves to be casting away the world of politics, they are quite simply embracing its not so new incarnation.

As a result, membership of the three main political parties in the UK has declined since the end of the Second World War. 2010 saw only one per-cent of the electorate were members of one of three parties. If we compare this to Greenpeace, as of 2009, they have almost three million supporters who have a paid membership.

Pressure groups have been instrumental towards bringing about social and economic change. Events such as the march against the war in Iraq in 2003, involved an estimated four per-cent of people in Britain. The marches in rebuttal to the rise in university tuition fees, the badger cull and fracking among others, along with the lobbying, petitioning and meeting with politicians, helped invoke change in society and have been known to even change law. So whilst political membership continues to drop and decline, memberships of groups like Greenpeace, NUS (National Union of Students), Mumsnet etc. continue to increase. To summarise, is it as simple as turnout is poor, or are people finding other methods to get their voices heard above the parapet of Fleet Street and Number 10?

The population do not appreciate the wider definition of the word politics, and how something as simple as the price of beer all the way to the legalisation of same sex marriages with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 can be introduced without putting a cross on a ballot paper.
Increasing the turnout at UK elections is not a simple fix by any stretch of the imagination. With people’s fundamental attitudes, the growing similarities of the three main parties, along with the sparse amount of young voters signed up to the electoral register, it means we won’t return to the high levels of election turnout seen before Blair’s second victory soon. However its decline can be repaired and reversed. It will take a stronger emphasis on improving upon the numbers of young voters ready to vote, as well as adapting an electoral system that plays to their technological strengths and compliments the advancements in technology, if we want this generation to be setting the example for the new era of voters in years to come.

More people will embrace the growing scene of ‘grass roots’ politics and protesting through pressure groups, moving on from the bra burning foundations of the feminist movement or the rallies against the Vietnam war. Pressure groups are instigating real change and playing a pivotal part of UK politics proving you don’t have to be in parliament to have a say in making laws. If you fight and stand up for your cause, you can achieve.

Should we be worried that turnout is not very high? Yes, but should we be worried that there is no political engagement at all? No, because the majority of the population are partaking in politics without truly knowing it and helping to bring about change.

Who knows, in years to come these pressure groups could produce their own political parties in the same way a small group for the country’s workers did over a hundred years ago, and went on to become one of the political powers in our society. It becomes even more plausible if the voting system is adapted and the smaller parties are given a larger stake. Nonetheless we could see voters hopefully returning to the polls sooner rather than later.


  1. “However, Tony Blair and Labour’s win in the 2001 general election was the start of a downturn in electorate voting, with only 59 per-cent voting in that election.” As you say, it’s gone up in the two elections since then so that’s not really true.
    A good piece though!

    1. Valid point, I sort of meant that was the start and we haven’t seen figures as high as before that point. Thanks very much 🙂

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