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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

The Knowledge: Low turnout ahead

Mark Gettleson looks at the effect of holding a by-election on the same day as the Police and Crime Commissioners election






Forget Obama vs Romney, the real electoral battle on everyone’s minds are the Police and Crime Commissioner elections on 15th November. Leaflets, posters, armies of canvassers, mass rallies to usher in the greatest democratisation of law and order the country has ever seen? I jest of course.

As the Electoral Reform Society has pointed out, the way this election is being run seems tailor-made to drive down turnout. There will be no free mailout for candidates, information will only be available online and the election will be held in deepest darkest November, when voters are unused to going to the polls.

An Ipsos MORI poll, released this week, found just 15% of people were absolutely certain to vote, with the same number knowing ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’.

These elections are perhaps the ultimate example of ‘low salience’ elections: as in ones people don’t care about or even notice. The recent Mayoral referendums fit into a similar category. Turnout is usually pitifully low, with only those who always cast a vote, no matter the issue, choosing to do so. Those on a postal vote hold disproportionate sway.

But what if a low salience election is held on the same day as a comparatively high salience one? Turnout will certainly rise and this affects the result as a whole, as was seen when local elections were held on the same day at the 2010 general election and Labour did much better than many expected, especially in cities and inner suburbs.

Parliamentary by-elections are hit-and-miss turnout-wise, particularly in seats like Manchester Central and Cardiff South & Penarth (whose MPs are stepping down to stand in the PCC elections), where the result is seen as a foregone conclusion. But marginals tell a different story: of the two seats the Tories took from Labour in the last Parliament, Norwich North saw a respectable 46% of its voters show up to the polls and Crewe & Nantwich an astounding 58%.

Even with a winter poll, we can expect Corby to be something of that ilk. According to the boundary commission, 79,468 of Northamptonshire’s 521,794 voters live in the Corby constituency, 15% of the total.

But if we give the non-Corby parts of Northamptonshire the ERS predicted 18.5% turnout figure, and assign Corby the Norwich North or Crewe & Nantwich turnouts, between 31% and 36% of all those voting in the Northamptonshire PCC election would be in Corby.

If Lord Ashcroft’s polling is right and Labour are heading for a landslide in the by-election, this could easily be enough to tip the county’s PCC vote. Once you add in the unpredictability of an SV preferential voting system, the fact many Labour-dominated unitary authorities are included in otherwise Tory counties and Ipsos MORI findings that voters are twice as likely to back Labour than Conservatives in the first round, the Tories may begin to regret this vote.

Such is the danger of holding an election few understand. But of course, almost everyone will be talking about Corby on 16th November.