Why don’t more people vote?

In the run-up to and aftermath of last week’s elections, all the talk was about the rise of UKIP as a new force in British politics. UKIP managed to go from 8 county council seats to 147 on a projected national share of the vote of 23%. There’s been a lot of ruminating in the last few days about why so many people voted UKIP. Was it because of immigration, the EU, or just a reflection of dissatisfaction on the economy? Was it an anti-politics vote? Are people just fed up of the main parties?

All of these are interesting questions, but there’s something that’s less focus placed on it, although to me it is the elephant in the room – turnout. The BBC has estimated the average turnout at last week’s elections to be 31%, down from 41% in 2009, the last time these elections were fought. So while in wards where UKIP stood candidates, 25% of those voting, voted for UKIP, when all eligible voters are taken into account, this means only around 8% of people who could have voted, actually voted UKIP. The proportions for the other main parties will be similar.

The Conservatives have taken UKIP’s success as a sign they need to start talking tougher on immigration and Europe as that’s what they think the message from voters has been, but what about the 69% (plus the (around) 10% who aren’t even registered to vote) who didn’t vote at all? Even in the last general election, turnout only just touched 65%, down from over 80% in the early 50s, and at last November, a paltry 15% of people bothered to cast a vote. The main parties seem a bit complacent about what to me is becoming a democratic crisis, and are instead focussing on appealing to a smaller and smaller number of people. But why are people opting out of voting at elections in such great numbers?

The following table (click on it to enlarge) is comprised of data taken from the website of the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). I’ve compiled data on turnout and electoral systems from each of the current OECD countries. The turnout is for each country’s last Parliamentary election, while the right hand column gives the peak turnout since the end of WWII.

Voter Turnout

A few things jump out on looking at the table. Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, countries which have compulsory voting have higher turnouts in general, although a few countries (like Denmark and Iceland) manage to achieve high turnouts without voting being compulsory.

Secondly, with the exception of Australia, all of the top 15 countries in the table have some sort of proportional voting system, mainly the list system. It was interesting that during the referendum campaign for AV, the no campaign made much of the fact that AV is used hardly anywhere else, but of the OECD countries, only three use our current system of First Past the Post, and of those three, the UK had the highest turnout at the last Parliamentary elections, but that was only the 19th highest in the OECD. This makes the Lib Dems decision to settle for a referendum on AV rather than PR all the more baffling.

Thirdly, the data on peak turnout is quite interesting. In relatively young democracies (like the former communist states), turnout tends to peak at the first democratic election, after which it falls off quite quickly. In more mature democracies though, peak turnout seems to have been in the period between the end of WWII and the 1970s, dropping off significantly since then. This is true of the UK, US, France, Germany, Australia, Canada and so on. Nordic countries, by comparison have managed to maintain high turnouts since WWII without much of a drop-off. So why might this be?

Here’s my theory (feel free to disagree). Since the late 1970s we have been living in the neoliberal period, during which time, the agenda known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ has been pushed – privatisation, liberalisation of trade and financial/capital markets etc. Initially, there were distinct political parties, which fought over these big issues, but as time went on, all main parties came to accept these ideas to such an extent that they are now largely indistinguishable on the main issues. This has been true of the UK since about 1992. These policies are detrimental to the welfare of a significant proportion of the population, so under a first past the post system, where the main parties look identical, what’s the point in voting? At least when people vote for an X Factor contestant, they can see that their vote has counted and can feel as though they have influenced something (no matter how trivial).

So what can be done? Working on the assumption that the more people voting the better, from the data above, we can see that in general, the countries with the highest turnouts use a proportional system for voting. If people feel like their vote counts they seem to be more inclined to vote. Compulsory voting also seems to ensure high turnouts. The Lib Dems blew a golden chance to address our democratic deficit in 2011. They blew it by plumping for AV – when they could surely have got a more proportional system on the ballot – and perhaps ensured the downward slide in turnout becomes terminal.

Politicians need to react to this if they are to remain committed to democracy. PR and compulsory voting will go most of the way to turning things around, and will also promote differentiation of political parties, which desperately needs to happen. The concept of a ‘party of protest’ should not exist. UKIP should have to spell out their policies like all parties and attract voters on their merits, rather than purely because they are not a ‘mainstream’ party. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories should be made to diverge so that, at the very least, the difference between them goes beyond the colour of their rosettes.