There is a general trend across western democracies of declining turnouts at the ballot box since 1945 – a trend which the political system in the UK does not escape from; several possible explanations for this trend, in the UK specifically, will be discussed in this essay. Perhaps the electorate feel alienated by the First Past the Post system which fails to properly represent minority opinions and interests. Furthermore, the electorate may feel alienated by the concept and supposed utility of voting in a broader sense (an issue detailed in Downs’ paradox). Secondly, a growing apathy towards the government amongst voters could be the cause of the decline. This apathy stems from both a distrust of the political class and, in the case of young voters, exclusion from the political debate. Although true to some extent, these factors do not fully explain the causes of declining turnout over the late 20th century in the UK and the recent uptake in political participation – including turnout. The sharp decline in turnout since the start of the 21st century was caused by a lack of competition at general elections. This also explains why, in recent years, turnout has begun to increase again and why turnout was especially high for recent referendums.
Firstly, the ‘winner takes all’ First Past the Post system almost inevitably leads to a two-party system in which a lot of people’s political views are poorly represented; this phenomenon is known as Duverger’s law (Sachs, 2011, p. 107). Voting third party tends to only increase the likelihood of one’s least preferred party gaining power (Government, 1997), so voters who align themselves with these minor parties may quickly become discouraged from participating in the future because much of the electorate are ‘wasted votes’, suggesting the FPTP system is at fault for declining turnout as it only effectively represents a minority of the population. At the 2005 general election, 70% of votes were ‘wasted’ – 52% on losing candidates and 18% on excess votes – and this is a significant criticism of the voting system as so much of the population plays no part in determining its outcome (Drogus, 2008, p. 257). Although this system certainly has flaws, one could argue recent elections cannot confirm that it is a major cause for declining turnout because previous generations cast votes under the same system with much higher turnout. For example, in the 1951 general election national turnout was 82.5%, whilst the turnout in the 2015 election was 66.1%. However, this approach fails to consider how voting preferences have changed. In 1951, 96.8% of votes went to the two major parties whilst this was just 66.1% in 2015. The popularity of minor parties compounded the shortcomings intrinsic to the FPTP system, with a far higher percentage of the population’s political views being under represented in parliament. However, this argument is fallacious: political power is not reliant on seats in the Commons, for example Cameron’s Bloomberg speech promising an ‘in or out’ referendum on EU membership was caused by voter defections to UKIP at the 2015 election (Goodwin & Milazzo, 2015, p. 127). This proves that minority parties can have significant power under the FPTP system and that there is no compelling argument for voters to stop participating in elections if their party doesn’t gain a majority. Secondly, this certainly fails to account for the recent increase in turnout, with minority parties like SNP growing in popularity. This can best be explained by increasingly competitive elections. The concept that one shouldn’t vote because it seemingly has no affect in the FPTP system is similar to the argument made in Downs’ paradox.
A second possible explanation for declining turnout is the argument (known as Downs’ paradox) that voting is incoherent, because political participation is irrational as an instrumental action to an egocentric end (Meehl, 1977). This is because the chance of your vote having an impact on the outcome of an election is always outweighed by the cost of voting itself. In fact, you are as likely to be killed on the way to the polling station (although neither probability can be accurately determined it is reasonable to say each is p<0.00001). Therefore, if one accepts that we vote because we believe it's in our best interests, it is more in our interests to not vote at all. However, recent elections cannot confirm this is a cause of declining turnout and it seems illogical to suggest it is. This paradox is as true today as it was 75 years ago, and yet turnout was significantly higher. This suggests that the paradox has not heavily influenced the turnout to UK elections. Another possible cause of declining turnout is increasing voter apathy. In 2017, just 29% of people believed parliament does a good job at representing their interests, and many cited a lack of faith in ministers (Verrall, n.d.). This strongly suggests that people have little faith towards the government which could act as a disincentive to participate in politics – including elections. However, this is inconsistent with other political activity which has significantly increased in recent years. For example, there have been 31 million signatures on e-petitions since 2015, from 14 million email accounts (Fox, 2017). This shows that public is still very active in politics and this increasing activity includes party politics. Party membership has increased significantly to 1.7% of the electorate compared to just 0.8% in 2013. This suggests that, although the public may not be happy with government they still understand they have a vested interest to participate in it where necessary. The significant rise in party membership can largely be attributed to Labour since Corbyn became leader since membership has increased from 388,000 to 544,000 (Keen, 2017). This suggests that a large factor of political participation is the current political climate, how competitive it is and to what extent the issues resonate with the electorate. Turnout, or lack of, is especially low in some demographics such as 18-25 year olds and ethnic minorities. To an extent this is caused by the policies adopted by key parties not resonating with these groups because their votes are not deemed important to the outcome of the election. The consequence of this is very low turnout for these demographics – for example just 44% of 18-25 year olds voted in 2010 compared to 76% of 65+. Would-be first-time voters have the propensity to not vote because the action has not become habit (Fieldhouse, 2012); this is exacerbated by the fact they do not relate to the political discussion. Key areas in 2015 like immigration mean little to younger voters so they don't engage in politics. However, the 2017 election proves they have the capacity to turnout in far higher numbers. Turnout was speculated to be 72%; higher than national turnout by 2% (O'Leary, 2017). A key cause of this was the labour pledge to scrap tuition fees – which directly engaged with young voters. This explains that elections show the declining turnout of young people until 2017, because they weren't included in political discussion. This further suggests that if people feel strongly about the issues and the political climate is competitive then turnout will be significantly higher. The final factor to affect turnout is the competitiveness of the political climate; if competitiveness and engagement is high then turnout will be too. The lowest turnout was the 2001 election in which Tony Blair would inevitably win, however since then elections have been closer, and turnout has gradually increased accordingly. An example of varying degrees of turnout is in Scotland where the 2010 election had a turnout of 63%; in this election no party gained or lost seats, suggesting that there was little competition. On the other hand, the Independence referendum had a massive 84.6% turnout. This clearly shows that turnout is strongly linked with the political climate at the time as opposed to any general downward trend. This is supported further by the fact that since 2006 turnout at elections has consecutively increased. The best example is perhaps a comparison of 'Brexit' referendums: in 2016 the referendum turnout was 72.2% whilst in 1975 it was lower at 64.6%. This firmly suggests there is no permanent downward trend of decreasing turnout as at two comparable referendums turnout was higher in 2016 (by contrast turnout at elections were higher in the 1970's). One can therefore conclude that the most significant factor to affect turnout is how competitive the political climate is (Franklin, 2004, pp. 201-224), which strongly intertwines with how strongly the parties' messages resonate with the electorate – as discussed previously. Word count: 1555 To conclude, recent elections can strongly deny explanations for declining turnout. This is because the voter paradox formulated by Downs is, clearly, largely ignored by the public and the FPTP system has been in place for periods of both high and low turnout, so cannot be blamed for decreasing turnouts early this century. Furthermore, in recent years public engagement in political activity above basic polling has increased, showing voter apathy is now a lesser problem. This can be attributed to the increasing competitiveness of recent elections and the introduction of popular policies that targeted more of the electorate. Increased competition has led to consistently increasing turnouts at elections for the past fifteen years and has seen referendums like the Scottish Independence referendum record some of the highest turnout figure since 1945.