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Don't Count On My Vote!

Date:16 February 2005
Category:Comment & Analysis
Specialism:Social Research
Keywords:2005 British general election, Turnout
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Turnout in May could be the lowest ever — and Labour may be hurt most.

One of the defining features of the 2001 General Election was the historic low turnout. The following graph demonstrates the scale of the fall in turnout by illustrating the percentage of the electorate who did not vote in each General Election since 1945. This shows very clearly, that by any standards, 2001 was exceptional.

Non-voters in general elections

But what about 2005? If, as expected, the Prime Minister calls an election for 5th May this year, is 2001 going to be seen as a temporary blip, or could the levels of non-voting be repeated or even exceeded? MORI's latest analysis shows little sign of a recovery in those expected to take part in the election, and if anything participation levels could be lower.

Since November 2002, MORI's monthly Political Monitor polls have been tracking the electorate's propensity to vote by using a numerical scale as follows: "How likely would you be to vote in an immediate General Election, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 means you would be absolutely certain to vote, and 1 means that you would be absolutely certain not to vote?". We have then taken those respondents who say they are absolutely certain to vote (i.e. those who say ten out of ten) and used this as a basis for working out the headline voting intentions and the likelihood to vote in an immediate election.

One striking feature of this tracking is that, bar two exceptions, the proportion of the electorate who say they are absolutely certain to vote has been at 51% plus or minus two percentage points for over two years now. This is, of course, not a direct projection of what turnout will be in May this year, since experience has shown that the number predicting that they will vote tends to increase as the election draws near — possibly both because of the effect of the election campaign in stimulating their interest, and simply because as the time draws nearer it becomes less remote and some people feel more certain about what they will do. Whether people think the election result is a foregone conclusion or not; and the extent to which people care who wins when it comes to the vote will also be factors. In addition, the extent to which local councils and The Electoral Commission have been able to ensure the most up-to-date registers of voters could also have an impact on the final turnout figures.

However, the omens for turnout are still not good. Before the 2001 General Election, MORI was using a different methodology to ask people's propensity to vote — this time a verbal scale, as follows: "From this card, can you tell me how likely you are to get a long to vote at the next General Election?"; with the answer options being (certain to vote, very likely to vote, quite likely to vote, not very likely to vote and certain not to vote). Therefore, in order to allow a comparison of certainty to vote ahead of the possible 2005 General Election, with previous elections, MORI has recently conducted an experiment using the verbal scale.

The following table presents the results of this experiment, together with trend data comparing those who say they are certain to vote about four months ahead of the previous two General Elections.

Turnout projections from MORI's polls (approx. 4 months out)

February 1997
   Certain to vote 61
   Certain / very likely 77
Actual turnout 1 May 1997 71
March 2001
   Certain to vote 49
   Certain / very likely 66
Actual turnout 7 June 2001 59
February 2005
   Certain to vote 45
   Certain / very likely 61
Actual turnout 5 May 2005 ??

First, if we look at the proportion of people who said they were certain to vote in February 1997 (61%) and then the actual number who voted (71%) we can see that there is a 10 point gap. Exactly the same happened in 2001. In March of that year, 49% of the electorate told MORI they were absolutely certain to vote at the next General Election; the actual turnout four months later was 59% (10 points higher).

Using exactly the same methodology as in previous years, MORI's new analysis shows that currently just 45% of the electorate say they are absolutely certain to vote in the General Election. Past experience shows that this is unlikely to be the actual turnout level come May, but past experience also shows that we would normally expect around a 10 point rise in the four months running up to the election. If this is so, a turnout level of 55%, would be the best estimate for 5th May 2005 — lower still than the record low set in 2001.

Much, though, will depend on the campaign, both as fought by the parties and portrayed through the media. If the 2005 campaign is the same or no better than the previous two general election campaigns at encouraging those not already fully committed to vote, we could be set for the lowest ever level of turnout for a British General Election. If the 2005 campaign is worse at engaging potential voters than previous General Election campaigns, the likelihood of more people not voting than voting should not be dismissed.

Labour loses most

As well as the clear implications for the health of British democracy, low levels of turnout have a practical impact on the political parties themselves. Because Labour supporters are most likely to stay away from the ballot box, it is Labour that will, perhaps, be most concerned with a low turnout in May.

This is clearly illustrated in the following chart, taken from MORI's January Political Monitor. In this survey, 51% of the electorate told us that they are absolutely certain to vote at the General Election (using our standard 10 point numerical scale). From this, MORI's published headline voting intention figure gave Labour 38% support, the Conservatives 32% and the Liberal Democrats 22%. As we assume higher levels of turnout (moving from left to right across the chart), we can see that Labour's vote share also increases. The Tories' share decreases, and the Liberal Democrats remain static.

Increased Turnout Boosts Labour's Majority

Base: 1,956 British adults interviewed face-to-face at 195 sampling points across Britain 20-24 January 2005

As such, if 2001 is just a blip, and turnout levels recover to those recorded in 1997, Labour's present lead would be 11 points — up from 6 points. The reason for this difference is that at present just 55% of Labour supporters say they are certain to vote, compared with 72% of Conservatives. As turnout increases, this gap closes. But for Labour to reach the same share of the vote as they did in 2001, 42%, we would need to see a record turnout of around 82% — a feat achieved only twice since 1945, and not once since 1951.

Low, and differential, turnout is therefore likely to have an important impact on the forthcoming election. First, a disproportionately low turnout among Labour supporters is likely to have a big effect on Labour's majority, should they be re-elected. It should be noted, though, that MORI's headline voting intention figures take this differential turnout into account so there are is no "extra million potential Tory voters" missed in our poll results, as was recently suggested by Liam Fox.

Second, a low turnout overall will surely have an impact on the mandate any Government can claim. In 2001, for the first time ever, more people chose not to vote than voted for the party that won the election. If Labour were to be re-elected in May 2005 on exactly the same vote share and the same levels of turnout as is reported in MORI's January poll, not only would it represent the endorsement of fewer than one in five of those eligible to vote, but Labour voters would be out-numbered by non-voters by two-to-one.

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Dr Roger Mortimore
Dr Roger Mortimore

Director of Political Analysis