Politics

Are we headed for a low-turnout general election? Why poverty and mistrust mean voters staying home

May's mayoral elections and this year's by-elections have seen low voter turnout. Will the upcoming general election will go the same way?

Rishi Sunak, general election, low turnout

Low turnout could be good news for Rishi Sunak, but it's unlikely to save him, warns one expert. Image: Edward Massey/CCHQ/Flickr

May’s local elections have cemented predictions of a Labour landslide in the looming general, with the party gaining hundreds of seats and regional mayoralties. Rishi Sunak is playing up the idea of a hung parliament as a possibility, saying it’s “not a foregone conclusion”. But the surface froth may mask something deeper: a general election doomed to low turnout.

Commentators have warned low turnout is a “cause for concern” for Labour. Just look at the political landscape: a cost of living crisis, sleaze scandals, Partygate, by-elections triggered by bad behaviour. There’s plenty of reason to stay at home.

So, are we headed for a low-turnout general election? We dug into the lessons of the local elections and picked the brains of some experts to find out. They painted a picture of an apathetic election, driven by uninspiring similar main parties, with an “alarming” implication for the UK’s democracy.

Local elections hold the clues to a low-turnout general election

For a hint of what the general election may hold, look to last week’s mayoral elections and recent by-elections. This set of ballots saw fewer voters showing up.

Low turnout is expected in local elections. While there is no full estimate yet of turnout for the 2024 local elections, recent by-elections, sparked by everything from lobbying scandals to MPs simply giving up, may point to voters simply not showing up.

Turnout at by-elections varies, but averages at 50.2% – significantly lower than general elections. This year’s by-elections have failed to hit those numbers. By way of comparison, the 2019 general election saw 67.3% turnout on average.

Labour’s victory in the Blackpool South by-election last week came on a turnout of 32.5%, down from 56.8% in 2019. It was a similar pattern for the rest of 2024’s by-elections. Rochdale’s turnout was 39.7%, down from 60.1% in the 2019 election. In Wellingborough, it was 38% down from 64.3%. Kingswood’s was 37.1%, down from 71.5%.

The trend goes beyond choosing replacement MPs. Here’s a stat: of the seven mayoral elections held in May 2024 which weren’t new mayoralties, there was just one – South Yorkshire – where turnout didn’t fall. London, Liverpool, Salford, Greater Manchester, Tees Valley, West Midlands and West Yorkshire all saw lower turnout than the previous election.

What will 2024’s general election bring?

What might drive low turnout in the upcoming general election? One big factor is the idea of a “foregone conclusion”, says Paul Webb, professor of politics at the University of Sussex. Widespread predictions of a comfortable Labour victory may prompt voters to stay at home. “If people think it is a foregone conclusion who will win, many will not bother to vote, but if they think it could be close, then they feel that their personal vote is likely to matter more – so they make the effort,” he says.

Second is the perceived difference between parties. “If the options don’t seem all that different – in policy terms – to voters, they might conclude that it hardly matters whether or not they vote; if they think it really will make a difference who wins, they are more likely to make the effort to vote,” Webb adds. While Starmer’s caution has led to criticism that he’s no different to the Conservatives, discontent with 14 years of Tory rule may strengthen feelings and bring voters to the ballot box.

Overall, he predicts turnout “in the low 60s”, and says: “A lower turnout is generally thought to help the Conservatives more than Labour, but I doubt it will save them.”

Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, agrees that we should expect quieter polling stations. “You have an unpopular government and an opposition which, even if it is heading for government, is not inspiring great enthusiasm,” says Cowley.

Poverty is making people less likely to vote

There is another big factor in whether people vote: poverty.

Last year’s local elections saw the most deprived areas have the lowest turnout, with turnout decreasing the poorer a ward was. The upcoming general election is set to be the most unequal in 60 years, research from the IPPR think tank found last year. Poverty is a huge factor: 9/10 of the top third of earners voted in two most recent election, but just 7/10 in the lower third did.

Across other measures, there was a 23% turnout gap between renters and homeowners, 15% between graduates and non-graduates, and 28% between 18-24 year-olds and those aged 61 or over. These gaps have not always been there, and were negligible in the 1960s

Turnout among low-income voters increased by seven percentage points from 2015 to 2017, the first proper increase for 30 years, and lower-income voters are more open to switching sides than high- or middle-income voters, found a study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

The end of the pandemic has seen an uptick in the UK’s income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, and the Resolution Foundation has predicted a bigger increase in inequality thanks to falling incomes for the poorest households as a result of the cost of living crisis. Poverty continues its ominous march, too, with the UK not seeing a fall in 20 years. Destitution has increased by 148% since 2019.

Amid this context, academic Ruth Patrick has warned apathy may not be the correct way to think of low turnout among those in poverty – instead, it’s a symptom of disgust at the system. Nor is the idea of low-income people as uniquely disengaged and disenfranchised, accurate, a study has argued.

“When they believe that most others vote in the neighbourhood, poor citizens are more likely to follow their example than wealthy citizens,” wrote Prisca Jöst in a 2023 paper, advocating for a strong social norm of voting to be established.

While low turnout can be a boon to the Conservatives, it may also be harmful for the idea of democracy and the interests of the marginalised, argues Dr Parth Patel, senior research fellow at IPPR.

“It’s hard to find a reason why the next election would buck the trend of long term decline in democratic trust and turnout. If anything, you could see how this election might accelerate it,” says Patel.

“As a country I think we are really overlooking how alarming this is. Only half of the people living in this country voted at the last election, a group in which older, home-owning, white citizens are considerably over-represented. If democracy is collective self-rule, what about the other half?”

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