(Article which The Guardian refused to publish in May 1997)
Frustrated Tories or disillusioned Labour supporters the cause of the low turnout?
One important feature of last Thursday’s election was the high abstention rate which, at a national average of 29 percent, constituted, in fact, a post war record. In effect, over 2 million people (2.3 million) preferred to abstain from the electoral process. This is not a phenomenon unique to Britain, since similar, or even higher, abstention rates mark the recent electoral contests in many other Western countries (the U.S. is the primary example where almost half the electorate do not bother to vote).
The crucial question is what are the causes of the low turnout in the last British election. One possible explanation offered by Alan Travis (The Guardian, 5/5/97) is that the over 2 million missing voters are basically former Tory voters who, frustrated by Tory policies, preferred to abstain rather than vote for an opposition party. Thus, Travis explains the Tory loss of 4.4 million voters in 1997 compared to 1992 on the basis of the assumption that about 1 million voters switched to the Referendum and the UK Independence parties, 1 million switched straight across to Labour whereas the remaining 2 million Tory voters simply abstained. To support his assumption Travis uses the examples of inner-city safe Labour seats. Thus, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, although the turnout fell from 63 to 53 percent, the votes of the Labour candidate went up by about 1,000 votes, indicating a high Tory abstention rate. Similarly, in the Birmingham Ladywood constituency, despite the fact that the turnout was also down, this did not prevent the Labour candidate from being elected with a comfortable majority (although with fewer votes than the Labour candidate of 1992).
However, there is an alternative explanation that can be offered with respect to the relatively high abstention rate, which can be supported both by a theoretical analysis and the statistical evidence. According to this explanation, most of the 2.3 million missing voters belong to the Labour party, apart from a few exceptions like, for instance, the case of the Cities of London & Westminster, or Kensington & Chelsea where the low turnouts (58.2 percent and 54.7 percent respectively) may indeed be explained in terms of high abstention rates among Tory voters. In almost every other case of low turnout in the country (i.e. turnout between 50 percent and fifty-nine percent) the high abstention rate usually correlates with an absolute decline in the number of Labour votes (accurate comparisons are almost impossible because of boundary changes) despite the even larger decline in the Tory vote. On the other hand, in almost every case of high turnout in the country (i.e. 70 percent to 79 percent) the low abstention rate usually correlates with a huge rise in the Labour vote. Typical examples of the former case are the constituencies of Birmingham Sparkbrook & Small Heath, the Hull constituencies, Leeds Central, Liverpool Riverside and Liverpoool Walton, Manchester Central and Manchester Blackley, Sheffield Central and Sheffield Brightside, Tyne Bridge. Representative examples of the latter case are Basildon, the Berdfordshire constituencies, Crosby, Devon South West, Dorset South, the Enfield constituencies, Finchley & Golders Green etc.
The statistical evidence therefore points to a much more complicated pattern than the one offered by the explanation of the low turnout in terms of high Tory abstention. According to this pattern, the straight switch of Tory voters across to Labour was much higher (it could have been as high as 3 million) and was particularly marked in areas with a high proportion of middle class voters. A similar tactical switch of votes from Liberal Democrats to Labour of about 800,000 votes produced an overall “gross” rise of about 4 million in the Labour vote. However, this huge switch from middle class Conservatives and LibDems to Labour was matched by a corresponding significant decline of traditional Labour voters’ participation in the electoral process (it could have been as high as 2 million), which was particularly marked in areas with a high proportion of working class voters, producing an overall “net” rise in the Labour vote of about 2 million.
This explanation of abstention is consistent with theoretical explanations like that of John Kenneth Galbraith (The Culture of Contentment) according to which it is the “Contented Electoral Majority”, consisting mainly of the middle class part of the electorate, which determines the electoral result, since it is mostly middle class voters that bother to vote. And rightly so, given that in today’s elections the programmatic differences between the main political parties consist of minor variations, such as who is going to manage the economy better, tackle crime more effectively etc. with even the overall levels of taxation and spending, usually, being taken for granted. These are obviously not the issues that concern the 24 percent of the British population who live in poverty and who are much more concerned with the fight against inequality, poverty, homelessness and so on ―issues that were hardly mentioned in the electoral contest.
The political implications are obvious. The “new” Labour party has been transformed into a middle-class party, a fact confirmed not only by its political programme and the composition of its voters but also by its parliamentary composition where the blue-collar workers constitute, after the last elections, an insignificant minority. The upshot of these changes is that in Britain, as well as in many advanced capitalist countries, the 'Americanisation' of the political process is, presently, blossoming. Electoral contests have now become beauty contests between the leaders of bureaucratic parties, characterised by minimal programmatic differences (appealing mostly to the middle classes) and a common objective: state-craft, that is, the management of power.