'What we need is a shock poll saying Labour's lead has collapsed,'
suggests Professor John Curtice, Strathclyde University electoral
behaviour expert, when asked if there is any hope the societal energy
prevalent before 1997's election will return.
With Labour around 15 points ahead in opinion polls, apathy is seen as a
reason why the result could be closer than appears likely - and William
Hague could achieve what many see as his best result: job retention.
Earlier this month, a report in The Guardian stated that Tory voters are
the most likely to turn out and should intentions be translated into
actual voting, Labour could have more than 50 seats trimmed off its
Millbank denies that it labels Labour's pre-election campaign blitzes
with any official slogan. A Labour spokesman stressed that the election
is yet to be called. However, PRWeek understands that 1997's strategy
was called 'Operation Victory' and some Labour strategists have dubbed
this year's campaign 'Operation Turnout'.
Labour heartlands will, though, remain Labour after the election, even
if turnout plummets. Traditional Labour voters are as likely to switch
to voting Tory as William Hague is to take Ffion to another Notting Hill
Declining participation - most noticeable in European and council
elections - is part of wider changes in society. Faith in public life is
at a particularly low level. Such problems are not confined to
Hull University's Phil Cowley is one of many to draw a distinction
between voter apathy and voter abstention. He argues that as a Labour
victory is seen as a foregone conclusion, it is rational behaviour not
to vote. Labour's seemingly certain victory is the main explanation why
turnout is predicted to fall.
As all parties step up the negativity of their campaigning, in turn
accusing the others of cynicism (or negative campaigning), a cycle is
The media has a curious role, in that by drawing attention to the
problem, it potentially amplifies it.
Tory and Labour spokespeople vehemently argued that the other side's
cynicism was entirely to blame for breeding electoral inertia. Liberal
Democrat director of communications David Walter adds that the two main
parties' 'Yaa-boo politics' is a turn-off.
VLP government and issues division (VLP-G) head Ian Beaumont, who worked
in the Downing Street press office under Margaret Thatcher and John
Major, believes PR can reduce apathy - and should be used as the key
electioneering communications tool: 'PR can cut through Yaa-boo sniping.
In 1997 advertising was dominant, but this time PR - I mean positive,
issue-based communications - can supersede it.'
As campaigners begin the battle to relate to the public, the youth vote,
ethnic groups and voters in marginal seats look set to be key target
groups with which any issue-based communications must engage.
A recent ICM survey showed that just 34 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds
voted in the last local council elections, with the elderly the least
'apathetic' (86 per cent of over-65s entered the booths). Britain's
youth is clearly an untapped electioneering caucus.
With this in mind, in 1996 a British spin-off of successful US
organisation Rock the Vote was established to get the vote out the
Thirteen per cent more 18 to 24-year-olds voted in 1997 than in 1992 -
500,000 people - with Rock the Vote claiming much credit. However, the
charity - now more of a lobbying group - is set to have a lower-profile
this time around.
Other organisations campaigning to stir Britain's youth are seasoned
campaigners NUS and the British Youth Council. For this election the
latter is aiming to catapult 'youth issues' up MPs' manifestos.
The Home Office has recently undertaken a pounds 3m campaign - 'Make
Your Voice Heard' - to communicate the shift in voter registration
legislation to rolling registration. From July, governmental attempts to
encourage people to register to vote - and become part of the political
process - will be handled by the new Electoral Commission. This is, of
course, too late for this general election.
Most analysts likewise believe the internet is not yet a significant
anti-apathy tool in the UK.
Rock the Vote UK executive director Charles Stewart-Smith says: 'I
dislike the word apathy. People are hugely enthused about single issues.
I think it's frankly absurd to suggest that young people are apathetic
about politics. They are maybe disaffected and disengaged from it, but
Just 60 per cent of ethnic minorities voted at the last election
(against the overall average of 71.5 per cent).
Operation Black Vote (OBV) is Britain's only organisation with the
specific aim of encouraging ethnic minority participation. Although OBV
is non-partisan, 95 per cent of African-Asians traditionally vote
Labour. Ashok Viswanathan, campaigns manager and deputy co-ordinator,
acknowledges that OBV's endeavours can be said to push votes - and swing
seats - towards Labour.
From a communications perspective, Viswanathan believes that, certainly
as far as black voters are concerned, Hague would be best advised to
adopt the unambiguously inclusive rhetoric of Steve Norris's London
As in 1997 - when OBV claims credit for mobilising pivotal non-white
votes in the three redrawn Croydon constituencies, particularly Croydon
North, or Batley and Spen (West Yorkshire) - OBV has drawn up an
exhaustive list of 'target seats' where it will exhort ethnic minorities
to register and vote.
Twenty-five per cent of Britain's black population are not actually
registered to vote, in contrast with four per cent of whites. OBV
targets seats with narrow majorities and where non-white votes could be
decisive seat-clinchers. Hence, Torbay - ethnic minority population 567,
Lib Dem majority of just 12 votes - is second on its 2001 list.
One OBV target (14th on the list) is Golders Green and Finchley,
snatched by Labour last time by just over 3,000 votes on a 15 per cent
swing. Ousted Tory John Marshall is keen for a comeback and it is this
sort of seat - Finchley is Thatcher's former constituency - which the
Tories absolutely have to grab.
Incumbent MP Rudi Vis considers the Conservative Party 'as unelectable
as Labour were in 1983'. He thinks that Labour seats most in danger are
in rural areas. 'I think we have been very unlucky with the countryside
- being blamed for everything. Finchley is an urban seat; urban voters
tend not to go for a rural person, which I think Hague has come across
as to my constituents. Labour has the upper hand in urban areas'.
Since WWII, turnout in general elections has oscillated between 71 and
83 per cent. In 1997's supposedly watershed election, there were six per
cent fewer voters than in 1992.This time, Beaumont goes so far as to
predict a turnout of 50 per cent ('a nightmare for democracy').
As soon as the election date is called, prepare for a PR blitz.
Targeting unregistered, unwilling or floating voters who are young,
black and/or live in marginal seats is likely to bear electoral
PRWEEK PUNDITS COMMENT
Charles Lewington ... former Tory director of communications
'I am convinced there is a correlation between apathy and prosperity.
We've now had seven years of real income growth - thanks to the last
Conservative government - so the lack of burning 'back-pocket' issues
will keep more voters away.
'The electorate isn't confronted with issues of ideological significance
- with the exception of Europe and hunting. The Cold War is over and the
trade unions are reformed. All three main parties are quite close in
policy terms - even to the extent of out-bidding each other to spend
more on the NHS. Voters have lost all respect for politicians. New
Labour has shown itself to be even more grubby than the last lot.
'All parties - primarily the Conservatives - need to address apathy by
'energising' their campaigns. Only acts of great drama shift poll
numbers and stir voters from their armchairs. A TV debate would have
done, which is one of the reasons why Downing Street rejected the BBC's
'This will be one of the dirtiest ever elections with Blair making even
more ludicrous claims about the Tories in an effort to get out his core
vote and ensure that disillusioned first-time Labour voters from 1997
don't switch back. At a constituency level, the Tories will be more
efficient at getting their vote out on election day than they were in
1997 when, in some constituencies, even volunteer minibus drivers were
hard to come by.'
Joy Johnson ... former Labour director of communications
'Low turnout is not in the interest of any party. However, the one
election where the Conservatives did well was the Euros and that had a
shockingly low turnout.
'It's no wonder that during Labour's spring conference every Cabinet
member warned of cynicism. Gordon Brown urged delegates to defeat not
just political conservatism but another more insidious form of
conservatism - cynicism. Reading Tory press releases, he said: 'They are
not trying to win voters' approval they are simply trying to win voters'
'The danger for politicians is that this so-called apathy comes against
a background of already-mounting cynicism about the two main parties and
the political process itself, and at a time when the view that 'they're
all the same' has never seemed so widespread.
'Low turnout, already a worry for Labour apparatchiks, can only loom
larger as a result of events which governments can do little to
'Labour strategists are going all out to get the turnout as high as
possible. But it is still key seats that will gain the most
There has been much talk of Labour losing in the heartlands but this
misses the point: the consequence of a low turnout merely reduces an
already massive majority. Nor should heartland be confused with core
vote - each seat has a core vote, a group who will vote Tory or Labour
Jeremy Browne ... former Lib Dem director of press and broadcasting
'People are less motivated to vote if they think the result is a
foregone conclusion. This is Labour's conundrum: the more they succeed
in portraying Hague as a born loser, the less necessary their supporters
consider it to vote.
'A smaller ideological divide between the parties can also demotivate
the electorate. A voter worried by the prospect of sky-high tax rises or
the abolition of the NHS is more likely to be engaged than one choosing
between different sets of managers intent on aping each other.
'The belief that voting is a civic duty has diminished. People over 65
are far more likely to vote than people under 25. That explains why
pensions are a hotter electoral issue than student loans.
'Politicians and the media need to be careful not to make apathy a
self-fulfilling prophecy. During the last nationwide poll - the 1999
European elections - it was virtually impossible to get party policy
What was mainly reported was how boring the elections were and how
no-one was going to vote. Anyone who values participatory democracy
should lament voting being portrayed as unfashionable.
'I thought Blair was unwise to duck out of a party leaders debate. There
is a gulf between Blair and Hague's personal ratings that Labour should
exploit. A debate could have provided an opportunity to engage the
mildly disaffected traditional Labour supporter that the party is
struggling most to enthuse.'