Turnout reached a twenty-year high of 69% in last year’s General Election. It was the fourth time in a row that turnout increased following the dramatic fall in the 2001 General Election, when fewer than three-fifths of the electorate (59%) participated.
What is behind this recovery in electoral participation in Britain? Analysis of the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) data by John Curtice and Ian Simpson offers some important clues.
Voters are more likely to vote if they have a strong motivation to do so and if they think there is an important and clear choice between the options on the ballot paper. Both considerations facilitated a higher turnout in 2017.
A politically-engaged nation?
Firstly and perhaps most strikingly, the British public’s interest in politics is higher than it has been at any time since this question was first asked on BSA in 1991. A record high has been observed in each of the last three years.
Before 2015, only around 30-33% said they had a great deal or quite a lot of interest in politics but in 2015 36% of people said they had a great deal or quite a lot of interest in politics. In 2016 this rose to 42%, with a similar number recorded in 2017 (43%).
A plausible reason for this increase is that the debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU and the referendum in 2016 has attracted the interest and attention of voters in the way that the routines of everyday party politics do not.
Meanwhile, the number of people who think it is everyone’s duty to vote in a general election is, at 70%, now higher than it has been at any time in the last 20 years.
...or a divided nation?
Finally, there has been a sizeable increase in the number of people who think there is a ‘great difference’ between the Conservative and Labour parties. The figure recorded in 2017, at 45%, is higher than at any election since 1992.
During the period of New Labour’s dominance of British politics, under Tony Blair’s leadership, the number of people thinking there was a ‘great difference’ fell to historic lows of 17% in 2001 and 13% in 2005.
However, with Labour now led by long-term left-wing activist Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives pursuing what some regard as a hard-Brexit, the perceived difference between the parties has widened again.
Taken together, these data show us that at the 2017 General Election, more voters were interested in politics than at any time for over two decades, more voters felt a duty to vote than at any time for over two decades and more voters felt there was a big difference between the two main parties than at any time for over two decades. It is perhaps not surprising that the 2017 election saw the highest turnout since 1997.
The future of the nation
It seems likely that the political environment over the next few years will remain conducive to producing relatively high turnouts. Negotiations and arguments over Britain’s exit from the European Union will continue until at least early 2021 and in reality, probably far beyond this.
If we are correct in our supposition that the Brexit debate has contributed to a greater interest in politics, then we may well expect a continued national conversation on the issue will keep interest in politics buoyant.
In addition, Jeremy Corbyn’s above-expectations performance in 2017 makes it highly likely that Labour will be led into the next election by someone very-far removed from the centrist New Labour approach of Tony Blair, thus ensuring that voters will continue to think that the choice being put before them matters.