ELECTION 2001: Campaigns to target voter apathy - With parties' pre-election posturing heating up, people's willingness to vote has cooled. Ian Hall reports

'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

179-seat majority.

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

following year.

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

not apathetic.'

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

mayoral bid.

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



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

messages across.

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.'

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