The result of the election is indeed a remarkable one: a Government liked and respected by few and despised by some preserved its already huge majority virtually intact, and it did so with a pitiful proportion of the eligible vote. The deficiencies of the electoral system are now more gross than ever, while a three-party system - in Scotland and Wales a four-party system - and differential turnouts have introduced a randomness and unpredictability which the overall results conceal. Furthermore, the fall in turnout is as remarkable as the Labour majority. It is the lowest since universal suffrage - lower even than the turnout for the European referendum in 1975. The Labour view is either that the fall is an international phenomenon or that people are too contented to bother to vote. It is true that it is an international phenomenon, and there is clearly an element of depoliticisation (see the very low turnout of first-time voters), but the fall in this country in two sudden lurches - 1997 and this year - from 78 per cent in 1992 to 60 per cent in 2001 cannot be explained only in those terms. The obvious conclusion is almost certainly the right one: a large proportion of the electorate concluded that the major parties had nothing to offer them and stayed away. That might be hard on the Liberal Democrats, but it's true enough of the other two parties. It is the adoption by the Labour Party of a neo-Thatcherite programme, modified too late for many (and thus the effective abandonment of programmatic competition with the Conservatives), which persuaded so many to bid farewell to formal party politics.
LRB 5 July 2001 | PDF Download