Dead Men Left

Monday, July 19, 2004

"Apathy" no more?

(More election statistics, for which I apologise; but it's vaguely interesting.) By way of a fairly casual observation, turnouts in elections appear to have taken a swing upwards, after years on the slide. Older MPs too used to the finer side of Westminster life would beat their corpulent bodies into the grave on a more regular basis than the relatively sprightly bunch currently in Parliament now manage, but the few recent Parliamentary by-elections seem to have reversed a long-standing trend. Take this report on Hilary Benn's election in June 1999:

The lowest turnout at a by-election in living memory has provided a narrow victory for Hilary Benn in the safe Labour seat of Leeds Central.

The son of veteran left-winger Tony Benn expressed disappointment at the turnout of less than 20%, as he hobbled home with a majority of only 2,293...

Leeds Central has traditionally been Labour's safest seat in the Leeds area.

Solid Labour areas have traditionally suffered from low turnouts, especially at by-elections, and Labour supporters are generally more fickle about attending polls than their Tory equivalents. But compare the Leeds Central turnout with the 38% and 42% turnouts in the similarly "safe", inner-city Labour seats of Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South respectively.

Likewise, participation in the recent Euro-elections was hailed as the best ever; whilst a large chunk of this can be attributed the postal-voting experiment, it is in keeping with what appears to be a general trend. Council elections have long suffered from slumping attendance, with by-election turnouts sliding from just under 40% at Thatcher's election, to just over 30% by Blair's second government. However, although the latest figures are skewed by the coincidence of both the Euro-poll and the postal ballot experiment, the turnout in the June elections bucked this trend.

Looking more closely, we can see that whilst between 1997 and 2001, turnouts for by-elections in Labour-held seats (9 out of 17 by-elections) averaged 28.9%, with even this figure nudged upwards by above-average turnouts in seats with strong nationalist (SNP and Plaid Cymru) votes. Of the five by-elections since 2001 (all in Labour-held seats), the average turnout has been 38.32%. In only one of these seats, Ogmore in February 2002, has turnout been altered by a significant nationalist vote. In three of the five, all post-Iraq invasion, massive swings against the Labour Party were recorded.

For some time, New Labour has worried about the collapse in "democratic participation". It appears to have hit upon a novel solution: the bitterness this government has provoked is inspiring large numbers of an otherwise passive electorate to make their presence felt in the polling booth. Contrary to the elitist (if implicit) assumptions of the British political class, the dynamic element in politics is not confined to the deliberations of a fixed group of super-informed individuals, who swing uncommittedly between parties in the manner of Saturday afternoon shoppers; by-elections are now being won - or, in New Labour's case, lost - on the basis of mobilisation of the otherwise demobilised. This is perhaps one reason for confidence in Respect's future: those excluded or ignored by conventional Westminster machinations now constitute a significant block of potential support, whether they are explicitly abused, like Muslims in general, or implicitly squeezed out like other traditional Labour voters. The necessary challenges of creating a strong identity, and a clear party programme, are substantial, and there is stiff competition from the established "official" "left opposition", the Liberal Democrats; but on the basis of such elections as Respect has faced in its six month existence, there is every reason for confidence.