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Turnout trouble?

For those of us who are passionate about democratic participation, the recent turnout in the London elections was disappointing. At 38%, turnout was marginally better than in 2004, but significantly less than the level of 45% reached in 2008. Of course,...



For those of us who are passionate about democratic participation, the recent turnout in the London elections was disappointing. At 38%, turnout was marginally better than in 2004, but significantly less than the level of 45% reached in 2008.

Of course, it may from time to time now be useful to claim that the mandate received by Boris Johnson is not a convincing one, especially when he is trying to attack the democratic legitimacy (for example) of trade union ballots. More fundamentally, the wider point is that Londoners are most definitely not stupid, and that they will always need to be able to identify clear reasons why to bother to vote.

In this context, research evidence from the US[i] on city mayoral elections over 25 years shows that variations in turnout are not explained significantly by demographic differences. In contrast, the research found that a close and competitive race, no incumbent and extensive mayoral powers, were all strong factors in increasing turnout. It is interesting also that the research demonstrated that large swings in turnout over time are particularly unique to city mayoral elections rather than other types of elections, with variations of up to around 35% in turnout in some cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle over twenty years.

The traditional view is that increased voter turnout in elections tends to benefit political parties of the Left. Recently, it has been claimed that increased turnout also benefits extreme right wing parties, which certainly seems to have happened in the recent French elections. From a self-interested perspective, Labour might then reasonably be worried that Londoners turning out for far-right parties as a first preference for Mayor would then put the Conservatives second. But as a matter of principle, Ed Miliband is right to focus on the problem of low voter turnout. This is not because a higher turnout in London elections would necessarily help Labour win back the Mayoralty (although it might help us in other elections). He is right because democratic socialist parties absolutely should be saying that genuine engagement of citizens is morally and politically vital.

In practical terms, it is tempting to look to compulsory voting models, as in Australia and Argentina. Within the Labour Party, whether in opposition or Government, it seems unlikely that compulsory voting would find any favour as a policy to pursue. But many of the other ideas previously put forward, such as weekend voting, early voting and increasing the numbers of polling stations, should be considered in detail as part of Labour’s policy reviews. It is regrettable that the Labour policy consultation document just published on Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities does not specifically consider the issue of democratic participation. Hopefully this can be addressed in any final documents, but it is a classic example of how an important issue can get lost in the current policy structures involving commissions with unhelpfully wide remits.

Even more important for the next London mayoral elections – and of course for all elections in the meantime – will be for Labour to develop practical strategies on voter registration.  Such strategies will need to counteract what has the potential to be a negative impact for the Labour vote of the change to individual rather than household registration. On the positive side, Labour’s continuing strength and vigour in London in comparison with other parties was demonstrated by high levels of campaigning and organising by activists all over the capital in the run up to the May elections. This experience and the contacts base gained as a result can help to make sure that the move to individual registration is not unduly damaging for Labour in London, and also that turnout is revived.

[i] Big City, Big Turnout? Election Participation in American Cities, Professor Neal Caren, Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 29, Number 1, pp.31-46

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