Thursday 22nd November 2012 | 20:00
The Knowledge: Troubled by low turnouts
Mark Gettleson analyses the dismal turnout of the PCC elections and its 'silver lining' effect for independent candidates
WORDS: MARK GETTLESON
"Worst. Election. Ever.” declared the Electoral Reform Society this week, with the slightest glimmer of told-ya-so-ism. Indeed, the story of a near farcical disengagement had been the only real focus before the election – and the 15% turnout dutifully fulfilled expectations.
The oft-quoted tale of the polling station in Newport where no-one bothered to vote in person, sums up post-election coverage.
But turnout, as expected, did differ in areas that had other major elections on polling day. Northamptonshire was the highest, at 19.5%, buoyed by the 45% turnout in marginal Corby. Avon & Somerset, similarly, scene of the Bristol Mayoral election, saw 18.8% of its electorate cast a vote. Staffordshire brought up the rear on a pitiful 11.6% in an election where a lack of choice, with just two candidates, may have led voters to stay home in even greater numbers.
The two shock results, however, only one of which made national news, both appeared in the top four turnout figures. The Conservative defeat of Lord Prescott in Humberside saw a 19.1% turnout and was significantly higher, at 23.2%, in the only authority carried by the victor, the East Riding. Hull, on the other hand, saw just 15.6% of voters participate. Similarly, in Labour’s shock victory in Bedfordshire, turnout in solidly Labour Luton was 20.2% – significantly higher than in Nadine Dorries country of Central Bedfordshire at 16.1%.
It is clear in both cases that the candidates wholly understood the priority in a low turnout election of driving out your base vote.
Much overlooked, however, is the impact of postal voting on low turnout elections. A clear majority of those who participated in these elections in many police authorities voted by post. In Surrey, for instance, a 10% turnout on polling day contrasted starkly with a 47% turnout by post.
Though turnout is unlikely to fall this low in future PCC elections, as they will be held in May, candidates will doubtless put renewed energy into getting their supporters onto postal ballots.
It also has consequences for the voting demographic. According to Electoral Commission figures from 2005, senior citizens represented 21% of voters on the day, but 44% of those who cast a postal vote. In elections where postal voters are up to five times more likely to cast a ballot, this asks further questions about an intergenerational democratic deficit: in low turnout votes, it is even more severe.
Low turnout was, however, almost certainly good news for independents, who performed especially well at the expense of a collapsing Liberal Democrat vote and a lack of willingness of Conservative supporters to back their party’s PCC candidate. As Ipsos MORI showed last month, they behave in a less partisan way than Labour voters.
But poor turnout meant a lower bar for independents, enabling 12 of them to defeat the big party machines. Some might refer to swings and roundabouts – if not, clouds and silver linings.