Lord Tebbit has an article in the Spectator expressing concern about the number of stay-at-home voters who are apparantly growing in their numbers and not impressed with David Cameron.

In Norman Tebbit’s article he says “These days the pollsters also mislead by telling the percentages of respondents declaring themselves for the parties, but no longer reporting the numbers of those in the largest opinion group of all —those who declare for ‘None of the Above’ — that is, the abstainers. We cannot tell, therefore, if Mr Cameron is gaining new supporters or whether his opinion-poll lead comes solely because of the haemorrhage of support for Labour.” Here, he is simply wrong. Polls have always been rebased to exclude don’t knows and won’t votes – and the figures are normally available if you look for them or ask for them. The Telegraph at least always publishes them in the small print (last month, for example, their YouGov poll had 7% won’t vote and 16% don’t know). I’m sure Lord Tebbit will be delighted to know that David Cameron is attracting new voters – if you roughly rebase the YouGov scores since the election to include the don’t knows and won’t votes, the Tories are up from 26% before their last conference when Cameron emerged as the likely next leader, to 30% last month.

Neither does turnout appear to be falling at present. It is a matter of record that turnout dropped sharply at the 2001 election, but one sharp fall does not make a trend. At the 2005 election it rose very slightly. Most opinion polls do ask about likelihood of voting, but the detailed figures are, alas, often absent from the published tables. MORI’s figures though are available here and suggest, if anything, that likelihood of voting is rising not falling. So far this year, on average 58% of people have told MORI they would be certain to vote in an election tomorrow, and the average likelihood to vote has been 7.9/10. This compares to 52% and 7.5/10 in 2004 and 51% and 7.5/10 in 2003. MORI have only been using their present wording since November 2002, so we haven’t got a full Parliamentary cycle to compare with yet – likelihood to vote could just decline in mid-term – but so far it doesn’t look as though the trend is downwards.

It is generally held that a higher turnout would help Labour. In normal opinion polls Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters say they are far more likely to vote than Labour voters, and therefore – the theory goes – if everyone voted it would favour Labour. This is true. The counter argument is that not all those non-voters are equally unlikely to vote, it may be that the non-voting Labour sympathisers are people who would never vote under any circumstances, while the non-voting Conservative sympathisers could be persuaded into the voting booths comparatively easily (Lord Tebbit alludes to the same in his article – he says non-voters could be 50/50 Labour and Tory, but this after excluding the large body of non-voters who would never, ever vote).

Non-voters are not complete unknowns – there have been several specific surveys of non-voters at past elections. After the 2005 election the Power Inquiry commissioned a OLR poll of people who had idenfied themselves as non-voters who were on the the electoral register and after the last two elections, MORI has carried out surveys about political engagement for the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society.

So, who are these non-voters, what do we know about them? Last year OLR asked 1,020 non-voters how interested they were in politics – 8% said very interested, 26% interested, 32% not particularly and 34% not interested at all. In comparison, a MORI survey of the whole population asked the equivalent question for the Electoral Commisson and found 13% very interested, 43% interested, 30% not particularly interested and 14% not at all. So, unsurprisingly non-voters are far less likely to be interested in politics – but there is a minority of non-voters who are very interested.

Asked what issues are important, they didn’t differ much from the public at large – they cared about the NHS, law and order and immigration. So there isn’t a huge swathe of people out there who aren’t voting because people aren’t addressing the right issues.

Why didn’t they vote then? The main reason given (in an unprompted question) was that they couldn’t be bothered (19%). The second that it was inconvenient (15%). 13% was a lack of trust in politicians, 10% personal reasons like ill-health or bereavement, 9% lack of choice, 4% didn’t receive a card, 4% was that politicans were self-serving, 4% that it didn’t change anything, 3% lack of information on parties, 3% didn’t like the choices standing, 2% on holiday, 2% religious reasons, 2% undecided, 1% that the result was certain, 1% their favoured party couldn’t win, 1% as a deliberate protest, 1% too busy, 1% didn’t know how and 1% forgot.

In other words, roughly speaking about 40% of people made excuses that boiled down to not making the effort or not being bothered, 20% were disillusioned with politics and politicians in general, 15% didn’t like the choices available, or didn’t want to cast a wasted vote or so on and another 15% were prevented by various personal reasons like religion, illness or being abroad.

In terms of proportions, I suspect these figures are wrong. Nick Sparrow pointed out when writing about a similar study at the 2001 election, the figures are likely to underestimate the proportion of people who just don’t have any interest in politics. Opinion polls always under-report the proportion of non-voters, and one reason is almost certainly that the sort of person who can’t be bothered to vote can’t be bothered to answer an opinion poll either.

Nick Sparrow’s response to the 2001 survey is worth quoting at length “According to this research voter apathy is the least important reason for not voting; only 10% of the Electoral Commission sample of non-voters replied that the reason they hadn’t voted was because they were “not interested”. Music to those eager to spend lots of taxpayers’ money on “schemes for innovative electoral procedures”. But the real answer lies with the people the Electoral Commission didn’t interview, not with those who decided to participate in the poll. It seems highly likely that many who decided not to vote because they couldn’t be bothered also refused to answer the pollsters questions for the same reason. In short voter apathy should have come top of the list by a country mile, not bottom.”

The largest proportion of people who don’t vote at elections is likely to be the apathetic and those uninterested in what is happening to their country. The Electoral Commission/Hansard Society audit of engagement found 12% of people who said they weren’t willing to do anything to influence a local or national decision, not sign a petition, not write a letter, not contact an MP, not even vote against a candidate at an election. 17% of people said not just that they didn’t have any say in how the country was run, they didn’t want to have a say in how the country was run.

In an earlier study using cluster analysis MORI characterised 14% of the population as as “utterly disengaged”, people with no interest whatsoever in politics, only 2% of whom said they are certain to vote in general election. As you might expect, the utterly disengaged are far more likely to be young (75% are under 45) , far more likely to be from deprived areas and far more likely to be working class (66% are C2DE). MORI characterised another 14% as passive onlookers – people who do think they could make a difference, but can’t actually be bothered at the moment.

These figures too are likely to be underestimates as the most apathetic and uninterested are highly unlikely to take part in opinion polls. Probably at least half of non-voters are people who will never vote (and according to research quoted by the Electoral Commission, it will probably rise as there is a cohort effect. Generations that don’t get the habit of voting now will be less likely to vote in the future).

However, since turnout used to be much higher prior to 2001 some present non-voters must be past voters now sitting on their hands. Not all those people who voted in 1992 and 1997 can have died! The level of people not voting for personal reasons is presumably constant – people have always had to cope with illness and bereavement and, alas, always will – that leaves us with lack of choice between parties and disillusionment with politicians.

Lack of choice doesn’t actually tend to be about voting system or living in a safe seat – very few people gave the fact that their favourite party couldn’t win their seat as as reason for not voting. More people give the reason that they don’t agree with any of the parties (3% of non-voters), or think there is no real difference between the parties or they are offering the same things (9% of non-voters).

This factor is probably a result of the end of an ideological battle in British politics. Now that both main parties believe in a market economy, a nuclear deterrent, privatisation, being strong on law and order, charging income tax of up to about 40p in the pound and public spending of about 40% of GDP there really isn’t a huge amount of difference between the parties, and no party wants to sacrifice the middle ground of politics where the majority of the votes lie in order to force an ideological gulf between the parties.

The other factor is a lack of trust in politicians, which does at last tie in with the timing. People don’t vote because they don’t trust or like politicians, think their promises are worthless (13%) and they are in it only to help themselves (4%). Recent polls have shown that the same sort of proportion of people think that this government is sleazy and disreputable as did the Major government in the nineties. The difference is, that back then people thought Labour were different and would change politics. Having seen a Labour government that they have come to regard as just as sleazy it is hardly surprising that trust in politics has been eroded. These are the type of people that parties could persuade to vote again…if only they could convince them that they are trustworthy and decent people who will keep their promises.

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