Those following coverage of ‘Election 2010’ could easily be forgiven for thinking, with regards to voting, that we have a system akin to that of Australia where voting is compulsory; such is the lack of discussion or commentary on turnout. In the years since 1997, turnout has arguably been the one ‘nugget’ for followers of politics in the absence of genuinely competitive elections. This year’s election coverage, although arguably unprecedented, has yet to really broach the subject of turnout which can often itself be an indicator of public opinion to politics.
Low turnout is universally seen as a bad indictment of a polity yet, conversely, it is often the case for elections in reasonably calm times such as the 2001 election when Tony Blair’s honeymoon continued; a turnout of 59.4% of the registered electorate gave Blair another term. On the other hand, high turnout often occurs when the national situation is at its worst yet is seen as a hallmark of an involved democratic civil society. The highest turnout in the post-war period occurred in 1950 when a turnout of 83.9% of the registered electorate returned a slim Labour majority.
Commentators, journalists and academics seem reticent to be drawn into predicting electoral turnout; Dr. Alexandra Kelso from the University of Southampton has suggested the competitive nature of the election may see it rise to around 68%. This however represents a marked shift from the weeks prior to the campaign when it was being predicted that this election might represent the lowest turnout in a general election campaign since the Second World War, as articulated in the Telegraph here. However the dynamics of the campaign, and perhaps most notably the leaders debates have galvanized an otherwise apathetic electorate, distrusting of politicians inextricably linked with the sleaze and scandal of Westminster politics.
With regards to turnout, the leaders’ debates will provide a chance for Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron to appeal directly to voters to give their party a mandate to offer change, each of whom promising political reform of some kind. However this may be a difficult task, particularly for Brown and Cameron, both of whom are thoroughly mired in Westminster whereas Clegg is able to present an alternative to the “old politics”. On top of this we have also seen greater advertising from The Electoral Commission, much of it aimed particularly at engaging young people over social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. It would appear that the fusion of interest offered by the live debates and also the advertising of The Electoral Commission have appeared successful, as reported in the FT here.
It will be an interesting facet of the election campaign when the new government is formed to return back to the more nuanced question of turnout; a high turnout will represent a successful campaign by The Electoral Commission as well as the success of the leaders’ debates whereas a low turnout may well highlight a deeper lassitude within British society to politics. The post-electoral breakdown of turnout figures should provide interesting reading as to how measures unique to this election have influenced the electorate.