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In the sights: Who really elects the government?
feature by Si Mitchell 10.05.01
In the 1997 General election, the electorate was 43.8 million, the turnout 31.2 million. Labour polled 13.5 million (43 per cent vote, 30 per cent electorate but won 67 per cent of the seats). Despite everyone over 18 supposedly having an input in the outcome, the parties will focus their 2001 general electioneering on just a tiny fraction of voters.
It has been calculated that only 1 in 5 votes actually count. i.e. the rest are voting for outright losers, or piling 'wasted' votes onto massive majorities.
In a usual close fought election less than 10,000 votes hold the balance of power. (This is less than one fortieth of one per cent of the total electorate). Even with Labour's massive lead, this figure is still less than 20,000 - however, these voters don't know who they are, and are not voting as a block.
Despite everyone having a vote there are only 150,000 - 200,000 swing voters in marginal seats (considered anywhere with a majority less than 2-3,000 - about 60 Lab, 15 Lib Dem and some Tories). This is still less than half of one per cent of the electorate. It is these marginal swing votes that all the parties are targeting. Though scattered round geographically, the vast majority of them are country or suburban seats that Labour snatched from the Tories in 1997. Hence the urgency with which all parties wanted to sort out the foot and mouth outbreak.
An all time low turnout of 64/65 per cent is expected for the 2001 election. The 35/36 per cent of no shows will be mainly young and poor people and most of them will be in the cities.
Unemployment is less than 1 million, and politicians are cynical enough not to bother with groups that won't turn out, says Professor Dunleavy. Young people, the jobless and homeless won't get much of a look in. Those in safe Labour seats will be neglected too, as will those in the cities. The target voters are the suburban/countryside home owners of working age - probably families with children, in the marginal seats. Also, as the turnout falls, pensioners are being courted for the first time.
Though the topics are big: families, education and the health service, the debate will be limited to service provision for the targeted middle class voters. Both main parties will promise the same things (mild and gradual improvement), brought about in slightly different ways. The Tories are preparing to pull the in-or-out-of Europe card - something that only really concerns people with money (though the issue can be played on a jingoistic level).
Labour will talk up the economy (but again, low inflation is of most interest to people with money. People in debt benefit from inflation). As Dunleavy says: Labour's help to the poor has been very subtle. You can see it in the statistics, but you'd be hard pushed to see it in daily life. However, for the rich, there is also the spectre of US style economic downturn looming, so the Government may play the economy down. Pensions and pensioners (in Gordon Brown's last budget, but absent from Labour's 97 manifesto) are featuring for the first time. Old people are more likely to vote.
However There is a danger in the UK, says Professor Dunleavy. That we'll end up with a system like America, where only the middle classes vote and the poor don't participate at all.
Next page: So what else is there?