low voter turnout - a threat to democracy in the uk?

The strength of enthusiasm for and engagement with the democratic process in Britain is vital to sustaining a healthy representative democracy. Voter turnout is measured by the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast their vote in elections for various levels of government.

The turnout at UK General Elections since 1945 is shown in the chart below


Turnout peaks at 82% in 1950 - but the long term trend in voter participation has been downwards. By 1983, turnout was doen to 72% - and despite an improvement in participation in both 1987 and 1992 (when the closeness of the battle prompted more voters to cast their vote) - the last two general elections has seen a sharp fall in turnout. 2001 may be seen in future years to have been a watershed. The overall level of turnout across the United Kingdom collapsed from 71% in 1997 to 59.3% in 2001.


In some parliamentary constituencies, turnout fell to incredibly low levels. In Liverpool Riverside only one third of voters bothered to vote. The chart above shows the seats with the smallest turnouts in the 2001 general election. Notice how all of them are in urban areas (all of them returned Labour MPs).The highest turnout in June 2001came in Winchester with 72.3%.


The factors that determine voter participation in particular constituencies

Turnout is affected by several factors

The social/economic mix of the electorate: Voter turnout tends to be lower in areas of above average unemployment, below-average incomes and higher rates of economic and social inactivity. These tend to be rock-solid Labour seats - but even the Labour Party in 2001 (and to a lesser degree in 1997) struggled to get their core voters out in these constituencies. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of these voters feel totally disengaged from mainstream politics (at local and national level).

Perceived importance of the election: Turnout tends to be strongest when, at a national level, the election is seen as being of special political…


Old Sir


A useful and concise exploration of factors affecting participation in UK general elections. Students might wish to further develop their knowledge and lines of argument by looking more deeply at the case studies referred to here and other electoral systems.