Low turnout is quickly becoming one of the biggest problems facing British democracy, especially as, in light of the local elections, Labour’s share of the vote only went up by 1% most probably due to the extremely low local election turnout of 32%, the lowest since 2000.
These low turnout figures go a small but still apparent way to undermining Labour’s win, highlighting the importance of the party not becoming complacent. The growing inequality in turnout can also be seen to massively affect election results. According to Ipsos-Mori, at the last general election, 76% of voters from the top social class voted, whereas just 57% of voters in the bottom social class did.
Unequal turnout matters because it reduces the incentives for governments to respond to the interests of non-voting groups. Pensioners have huge electoral clout and as a result, free TV licences, bus passes and pensions are often seen as deal-breakers for many governments. When we see spending cuts in the UK having a disproportionate affect on young people and the poor, it’s because they don’t vote!
Turnout problems also plague the legitimacy of referendum decisions. The referendums that took place on Thursday to decide whether or not cities across the country wanted local mayors had extremely low turnout figures, with Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham all at 24% turnout. These figures can highlight the paradox of a system that uses referendums, being that they are meant to enhance legitimacy and encourage political participation but they end up doing neither.
Another issue stemming from the events of May 3rd is the role of the media. During Ken Livingstone’s concession speech he lashed out at ‘media bias’ probably considering the particularly hard time he got from the Evening Standard and although this certainly didn’t help him, he has beaten many ‘smear’ campaigns and tough right wing press opinion in the past. However, it seems, unfortunately, he was his own undoing as most of the electorate just couldn’t perceive a future with Ken.
The power of the media however, isn’t to be undermined, they have the ability to influence, reinforce and agenda shape based on what they think the current or important issues are. Looking back at the 2010 live general election debate and the massive support that drew in for the Liberal Democrats, perhaps Livingstone was right in expressing sadness that the BBC cancelled the question time debate and prevented candidates from being interviewed on the today programme. This time round however, it seems that Ken just wasn’t the answer Londoners thought were looking for.