Sunday, 24 April 2005

Turnout collapsing in Britain

Robert Tagorda has a link to a really interesting Christian Science Monitor piece that notes a massive collapse in voter turnout in the United Kingdom over the last decade:

With less than two weeks to the May 5 vote, the big question facing British politicians is not who votes for them, but who votes at all. Experts predict the lowest participation in a century.

Turnout that persisted above 70 percent for decades after World War II is expected to plunge to 53 percent this cycle, according to Professor Paul Whiteley of England’s Essex University. Turnout in the 2004 US presidential vote was 61 percent.

Turnout is expected to be especially dire among young people – and worse still in inner-city districts like Vauxhall. “People of my generation do feel guilty if we don’t vote, but 18— to 20-year-olds don’t,” says Mr. Whiteley. “They don’t see party politics as interesting.”

Bizarre theories are raised for this turnout collapse by some:

Some critics charge that the increasingly presidential nature of British politics is a turn-off. Martin Bell, a former independent member of Parliament, says Parliament is too subservient to the prime minister. Mr. Bell, who is now managing a campaign for a candidate running against Mr. Blair in his Sedgefield constituency, also cites the erosion of trust in politicians.

“The problem of trust is at the bottom of the distaste for public life,” he says. “The prime minister hardly ever appears in Parliament. He hardly ever votes himself” in parliament, he adds. The inference is clear: Why should the electorate vote, when the country’s leading politician doesn’t?

The imperial prime minister (or, at least, the imperial cabinet) is nothing new in British politics (Walter Bagehot wrote about it in 1867 in The English Constitution), so Bell’s explanation seems rather unlikely. Another theory seems slightly more plausible:

Then there is the dramatic shift in British political geography. A generation ago, Britain’s electoral map looked like a Piet Mondrian painting: red slab in the north for Labour, blue block in the south for Conservative – a split evoking the contrast between coast and hinterland in the last US presidential vote.

Today, the map is pixellated like a faulty computer screen.

Ms. Giddy says it’s part of a cultural shift. “You don’t have strong allegiances to communities and parties in the way you did, say, when living in a mining town meant you voted Labour as an extension of your community,” she says.

This theory—essentially, dealignment of the British electorate—makes some degree of sense; indeed, dealignment of the electorate is a common explanation for turnout decline (despite increased ideological polarization of the major parties) in the United States. Of course, dealignment would suggest a substantial reduction in the importance of social class in British politics—something I’d hesitate to argue has happened, absent a lot more evidence. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the turnout rate is as low as the 53% figure posited by some of the experts; my gut feeling is that it will be higher, but what do I know?