Britain’s army of non-voters has the potential to transform our domestic politics

The political class worries about declining voter turnout and party membership. But as Fran O’Leary argues, it gives too little thought to winning back non-voters, who number over ten million, and have the potential to transform the political map. But while all parties could reap the rewards, there are varying degrees of risk for Labour, the Conservatives, Ukip, and the Liberal Democrats. 

Could Nigel Farage benefit from the recruitment of Britain's non-voters? (Credit: European Parliament, CC BY SA ND 2.0)

Could Nigel Farage benefit from the recruitment of Britain’s non-voters? (Credit: European Parliament, CC BY SA ND 2.0)

While campaigning for Obama in 2012 in Las Vegas I saw the success the Democrats had in inspiring people to register to vote, and I set out to find out why politics in the UK is failing to inspire 19 million Britons to vote including many of my own friends. Around 39 per cent of people didn’t cast their vote at the last General Election. This year only 41 per cent of people said they would be certain to vote if there was an immediate election, the lowest level ever recorded by the Hansard Political Engagement Audit, and only 12 per cent of young people said they would definitely cast their vote.

During the last year I’ve spoken with a wide range of non-voters, including some young trade union members, and I believe that those in politics shouldn’t write them off simply because they don’t act on a ‘duty’ to vote. The Lodestone Political Survey, prepared by Survation, polled over 2,000 voters and non-voters to give us an insight into why some people don’t vote. ‘Non-voters’ are defined here as those who didn’t vote in the 2010 election, including ‘new voters’ who were too young or ineligible to vote at that time.

Unsurprisingly, many of the non-voters who said they would vote UKIP said that the one thing they would most like politicians to focus on doing is ‘getting the UK out of Europe’. Labour leaning non-voters were far more likely to prioritise poverty, taxing the rich and housing, and far less likely to prioritise getting the UK out of the EU and welfare reform, than the total sample of voters and non-voters.

When asked about why they didn’t vote, the majority of non-voters said that they didn’t believe their vote would make a difference or that they believed that all the parties and candidates were the same. Other non-voters said that they were not interested in politics, that they didn’t have enough information and knowledge to make a decision or didn’t vote for other reasons. Many non-voters told us that they felt politicians were ‘out of touch’, with one Conservative-leaning HGV driver from Wiltshire saying, ‘I don’t think they [politicians] try hard enough to understand what it is to be an average person in the community.’ With 86 per cent of non-voters saying that they don’t trust politicians to tell the truth, bridging the trust gap will be a significant challenge.

It may be a daunting task but the rewards to be gained, from reengaging the disengaged, could be significant for Labour as outlined in Labour’s Next Majority, a Fabian report by Marcus Roberts. The Lodestone Political Survey found that 56 per cent of those who didn’t vote in 2010 said that they would probably vote if an election was held tomorrow. While people are far more likely to say they’ll vote than they are to actually vote, it is striking that 32 per cent of these people said they would vote Labour. 22 per cent said they were undecided, 18 per cent said they would vote UKIP, 15 per cent said they would vote Conservative, 5 per cent said they would vote Lib Dem and the rest said that they would vote for other parties.

That means that around 11 million of those that didn’t vote in 2010 say they would vote if an election was held tomorrow and that 3.4 million of them would vote Labour.  This is a rough estimate, in that some of those who didn’t vote in 2010 will have passed away, other demographic changes will have also been at play and, of course, many of those who say they will vote will not vote. However, the potential win for Labour from motivating just a fraction of these 3.4 million citizens to vote is clear when you consider that the party only attracted 8.6 million votes at the 2010 General Election. To make the most of this opportunity, Labour should implement a strong, coherent, campaign strategy for non-voters in marginal constituencies and work to attract young people to increase the pool of potential Labour voters for the long-term.

Non-voters also represent a significant opportunity for UKIP. Motivating the 18 per cent of non-voters who say they would vote UKIP if an election was held tomorrow could potentially draw almost 2 million voters to the party. Encouraging these citizens to register and vote, alongside voters who are growing frustrated with the Conservative and Labour parties over the EU, immigration and other issues should be a core plank of UKIP’s campaign strategy.

Some Conservative activists argue that non-voters are not an issue for the Tories, both because the party’s time is better focused on its core supporters and because activating non-voters could risk unlocking votes for Labour and UKIP. However, if other parties were to aggressively target non-voters, while the Conservatives chose to walk past the front doors of the 1.6 million non-voters who said they would vote for them, they could lose out.

The level of non-voting is so high that even if a small number of non-voters were motivated to vote for the Conservatives’ opponents then this could have a disruptive impact on election results, especially in marginal constituencies. This is a dynamic that Crosby campaign tactics – forged in an Australian system of compulsory voting where political dividing lines are prioritised over motivating people to turn out – may not be best placed to counter. The Conservatives ignore non-voters at their peril.

There is, of course, a strong possibility that non-voters who are motivated by UKIP to go to the polling station may end up voting Conservative when they put pencil to paper. Almost half of the non-voters who said they would vote Conservative worked in jobs that are considered to be ‘blue collar’ or earned under £30,000 a year. Should the Conservatives turn their attention to non-voters they should target their messages carefully, paying close attention to the interests of the ‘blue collar’ Conservatives in their ranks who may respond positively to tougher campaign messaging.

With only 5 per cent of the non-voters we surveyed stating that they would back the Liberal Democrats, non-voters could present a major challenge for the Party. While the Liberal Democrats promote local issue-based campaign strategy, they should keep in mind that many of the non-voters who could become politically engaged through this experience will not naturally lean towards their party. Unless the Lib Dems are very careful with micro-targeting and persuasion techniques in their campaigning, they could risk motivating non-voters to vote for their opponents.

While non-voters don’t have a voice in Parliament, our research shows that they certainly have a lot to say. Inspiring millions of people to vote is undoubtedly a tough task, with clear benefits for Labour and UKIP, tough calls for the Conservatives and challenges for the Lib Dems. With so many people disengaged from the electoral process, the party that manages to build a bridge across the chasm between politics and non-voters will reap the rewards.

Note: this post originally appeared in Demos Quarterly under the title ‘Why Don’t You Vote?’ and can be found here. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: http://buff.ly/1iTOgJ5

Fran_OLearyFran O’Leary is Director of Strategy and Innovation at Lodestone, a strategic communications consultancy.  Her experience is founded on a career in broadcast, print and digital media and she has also worked in a policy and research-related role within Government. She is on Twitter @FranOLeary

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