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Voting decline and the two welfare states

A few days ago I sat down to write an article about this election that is coming up, to try to explain why neither I, nor the other Samizdatistas, nor, apparently, very many of the British electorate, were getting very excited about it. Last time around, the voter turn-out was way down, and they are predicting the same thing again only more so.

However, I think it is important to distinguish between boringness and the decline of the overall vote, because an election can still be extremely exciting for those who remain excited by it, yet turn off lots of others by the million. Witness recent Presidential elections in the USA.

So, in this posting I will concentrate on the decline in the British voter turn-out in successive general elections, and speculate about why this has happened.

In order to try to understand this, I googled my way to this short piece, which I found very informative.

It shows several things. First, it shows that the vote has indeed declined. See the first graph of voter turn-out for each general election since the war.

Second, it explains where. Basically, the voter decline has been most severe in the Labour inner-city strongholds. The voting decline is largely a working class – or perhaps one should say ex-working class – phenomenon.

What gives? Why are these people not voting as much as they used to?

Let me rephrase the question by turning it upside down. Why did they ever bother to vote in such huge numbers in the first place?

I think the answer is that they voted because people who cared about them, and were of use to them, asked them to and told them to. A sociologist would say that they were all members of a voting tribe, for whom voting was a norm. An economist would say that they voted in exchange for favours that fellow tribesmen gave to them. In practice, such things are but different facets of the same thing, reinforcing one another to the point where separating the two notions becomes impossible.

Not that Britain’s working class voted Labour in the nineteenth century. There was no Labour. But they did vote. Individual interest and collective values, tribal and national, both pushed them towards voting, in huge percentages. With the rise of Labour, working class votes flowed towards Labour, but never completely. There were always millions of working class Conservative voters. But this posting is about the total number of votes cast, not who they were cast for. In the twentieth century, partly in response to all this working class voting, a welfare state has been created.

This has undermined voting, by separating the working class from its traditional leaders and protectors. In the Friendly Societies, and then in the Trade Unions, benefits, both monetary and in kind, flowed to members, and votes flowed from members, in exchange or as part of the order of nature, whichever sort of wording you prefer.

But when you now get your welfare cheque, nobody tells you which way to vote if you want to go on getting it, or even to minimise the fuss in getting it. And, your welfare cheque has the effect of making you less dependent upon favours from other identifiable human beings, of the sort who might have political preferences and allegiances.

Voter decline is especially concentrated among the unemployed. This makes perfect sense, once you stop thinking merely about people’s opinions and interests and think instead about where – and from whom – they might, or, now, might not, be getting such opinions abnd being told about such interests, and whether or not they bother to act on them by voting in accordance with them. Sure, the unemployed have all sorts of economic interests and opinions that make them vote this way or that way. But, as many an apathetic non-voter has explained, why bother? One vote will not make any difference.

In earlier times, your one vote made a hell of a difference. If you did not supply it, you suffered tangible losses in the form of grumpiness from known individuals whom you needed to keep on the right side of. Not any more.

But now, look again at that voting chart. The usual way to look at it is to say that it is a flat line, and then a fall off a cliff in 2001. But another way of looking at it is to see it as smooth descent, with a massive plateau-like interruption to that descent. Look at it this way, and 2001 becomes the norm. It is the years from 1970 to 1997 that become the oddity. What were they about? 1950, 1951, 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970 and 2001 are all in that same declining straight line. 1955, which I shall ignore, is an anomaly, for being too low, as it were. And all the years from 1970 to 1997 were, so to speak, too high. What might that be about?

I think that the answer is that in twentieth century Britain there were two welfare states, and not just the one. There was the “individual” welfare state, the one that gives you your individual stash of money, week after week, which more and more people have been gradually sucked into relying on. And if it is true that people have only gradually been sucked into involvement with that, then that would make sense of the underlying steady decline in voting.

However, meanwhile, until lately, there has been another welfare state, in the form of vast industries kept alive by nationalisation, subsidy, and general political coddling. The argument about whether these were a good idea got seriously started after Harold Wilson had added several more such industries to the ones that already existed, that is to say in about 1970. The argument got more and more heated, and became white hot when Mrs Thatcher shut them down.

For as long as this second welfare state lasted, and for as long as the argument about whether it should last lasted, that caused millions to vote. Their work-mates, union superiors, and so forth, told them to vote Labour, if they were in the politically supported industries. And, there was also a tidal wave of anti-Labour voting from people who, given the chance to vote against it, wanted the industrial welfare state done away with. Again, they told each other to do this.

And then, that all stopped. There was one final hurrah of high turn-out in 1997, when three things happened simultaneously. First, millions of people, who agreed with Thatcher’s policies but who loathed her personally and loathed even more her ghastly Conservative lieutenants and supporters, were finally able to give the Conservatives a good kicking without rebuilding the industrial welfare state and ruining the country. Second, millions more people, who had become exaggeratedly optimistic about the new entrepreneurial arrangements which Thatcher had supposedly ushered in and who had then got hit badly, also gave the Conservatives a good kicking. And third, people got excited about Blair.

Then, they stopped being quite so angry with the Conservatives, stopped telling each other to vote, and stopped being excited about Blair, and the vote fell off that cliff.

My surmise is that the suddenness with which Thatcher shut down the second of the two welfare states is what caused the suddenness in the decline. Suddenly, all that voting, against it, but especially for it, and after a brief punitive spasm of anti-Cionservative revenge, also stopped.

This time, there may or may not be an anti-Blair vote (we shall see), similar to all those disillusioned ex-Thatcherites who voted Labour in 1997 because their wallpaper companies had gone bust and they were reduced to minicab driving. Lots of Labour people make now vote against Blair and his Iraq war by voting Liberal, or even Conservative. So the result, in the sense of relative performances, may this time be very different. Or it may not. But the decline in overall turn-out looks set to continue, for all the reasons described above.

The one thing that might halt it would be if the number of public sector workers recruited by Labour since 1997, a revived version of the collective welfare state that Thatcher closed down, was big enough to get a whole new slab of people back to the polls, voting Labour presumably. But maybe not, because of the anti-Blair anti-war factor.

Two final comments. First, voting is subject to long time lags between cause and effect. I have written as if what some guy at work says to you yesterday decides how you will vote today. Actually, of course, voting this way or that way is more like a habit, which may outlast the circumstances that gave rise to it by several decades. For that reason alone, I would expect the vote to decline again at the next election. Simply, a whole bunch of people who got their voting habits years ago will be dead and gone, and replaced by another new set of apathetics. That cliff the graph falls off is only a cliff because you put 90 percent at the top and 50 percent at the bottom. If it went from 100 to zero, that fall would be seen as only the beginning of what it might turn into.

And finally, a pre-emptive comment, about the EU. I do not think that the EU has had much to do with this voter decline. Whether the British government is good for you or bad for you, helpful to you and your friends or harmful, is still hugely affected by who that government is, and it will be for quite some time. At present, we have two front benches who more or less completely agree with each other, apart from one liking Blair and the other not. But that agreement is because they agree, not because the EU has forced them to agree.

Besides which, what about the USA? Overall turn-out has been worryingly low there also, for all those who worry about such things, has it not? And for longer. The USA is not a newly conquered province of anything bigger, is it? Well, maybe it is. Maybe, like the rest of us, they are being conquered by a new global elite, of gradually increasing relative importance. To put it another way, there is, maybe, some small thing like an EU factor at work here, but if there is, it is not confined to the EU.

29 comments to Voting decline and the two welfare states

  • Interesting analysis.

    It seems to me one might even make a prediction based on it. Since coming to power, Labour has steadily increased the size of the public sector, increased taxes and increased regulation. The British state is once more rampant, and has also battered down the protections the individual used to enjoy against the abuses of state power, to the point where even the holding of a trial or the laying of charges are optional if the state wants to impose some sort of punishment on you.

    At the moment, no political party is offering a serious alternative to this rampant statism. The best we get is the Lib Dems opposition to the attacks on civil liberties, whilst being even more statist and beholden to the anti-democratic EU(SSR) than Labour, and the Tories planning merely to increase public spending slightly slower than Labour, whilst voicing support for ID cards in principal.

    If a major party does opt for rolling back the ever larger state and restoring such basic rights as the right to a fair trial, I think that’s when we’ll see turnouts increase again because that’s when there will be an election where the outcome really will matter.

  • Bernie

    I agree with James. To put it in a nutshell and to use a fairly well known tagline from the early ’90s people aren’t voting because….”no matter who you vote for the government gets elected”. I think there is a lot of would be support for a party who dared to roll back the state.

  • guy herbert

    I agree too. The truth is we have ceased to be a parliamentary democracy or a constitutional monarchy. We have reached a nominally elective dictatorship; but the permanent state machinery is more important for the bulk of bullying than the dictator for the time being, even though he can, as with Blair, direct and accelerate the process. It would take a very determined and cunning PM to put on the brakes and reverse the direction.

    People don’t vote when they don’t think it matters. They are not completely right to assume it doesn’t matter. But it is very clear it won’t make a huge difference. I think Brian makes the common mistake of both overestimating Thatcher’s impact, and the extent to which Blair has adopted more than the veneer of Thatcherism.

    I’m much less sanguine than James and Bernie that an state reduction party would be sufficiently popular. The Tories stopped being one rhetorically–having not been fading from being one in practice since about 1984/5–because that’s what they think. They are seen as weirdos.) Many, perhaps most, people don’t want responsibility for their own lives, folks. Those whose voting has declined most are the most resigned to the status quo.

    There are currently only two state reduction parties of significance–i.e. on media radar–in this country: UKIP and Veritas. Sad to say they are both treated as jokes–even by each other.

    We have to look to the revival of liberalism in the Tories for the possibility of an electable state-reduction party. But while the struggle is for the floating voter who is more or less happy with things as they are, don’t expect massive change.

  • zmollusc

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    How does voter turn-out look by age of (non)voter? Do only the daft kids vote because they erroneously believe that they can make a difference? Or do no kids vote because they are too busy smoking crack and shooting each other from stolen cars?

  • I'm suffering for my art

    I don’t live in the UK, however I gain a lot of useful insight from reading entries and comments threads in blogs such as this one. From what I read, the trouble is a lack of ideological discipline of the liberal fringe parties. These guys remain laughing stocks because they keep shifting their goalposts in an attempt to emulate the large, “catch-all” parties that have the ability to form government. For example, I recently read someone’s comment about the leader of the UKIP (supposedly standing for small government, economic liberalism etc) whining about the merits of fair trade. These blatant contradictions rightly scare away people such as ourselves. If the small, niche parties like Veritas and the UKIP stuck to their guns, they would cease to be a laughing stock after one election when their constituency suddenly increases massively.

    Such parties would probably always remain niche players, however it would go a long way towards snapping the Conservatives out of their prevaricating malaise – suddenly, we’d have proof that a liberal, small government platform can win votes.

  • GCooper


    “For example, I recently read someone’s comment about the leader of the UKIP (supposedly standing for small government, economic liberalism etc) whining about the merits of fair trade.”

    While I very much agree with most of the sentiments posted above (and notably with Guy Herbert’s view) I think you have hit the nail on the head regarding UKIP.

    As I posted elsewhere, I was astonished this week to hear Roger Knapman, its leader, say that UKIP would have kept Rover afloat – a policy even more Labour than Labour’s!

    Indeed, it’s far from clear what sort of government UKIP would be were it elected, so your point about ideological consistency is well made.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    GCooper – I seem to be suffering from a cross-thread muddleup! I was in fact referring to your comment where you mentioned Roger Knapman pontificating about Rover’s demise. I must have superimposed the “fair trade” bit from another post. Whoops! However, proposing such government intervention is as odious as the “fair trade” concept to most readers of this blog. For the leader of a supposedly liberal party to assert such things is, as you rightly point out, astonishing.

  • Phil

    G Cooper, ISFMA. the fact still remains that the average Nu- Labour voter can’t be botherd to get of their lazy Arses come voting day, plus about UKIP Knapman was trying to make the point that if we were out of the EU, the opportunity to save Rover could have been there, as it was under EU rules the Govt was hamstrung . so much for the wonderful EU???

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Phil – it’s not exactly confidence-inspiring when the leader of a supposedly pro free-market, small government party justifies leaving the EU so as to make governmental bailing out of a failed company possible.

    You talk about being hamstrung by EU regulations barring state assistance of failed/failing private companies. I’m no fan of the EU. However, I would like to see a government hamstring itself with laws that make such actions impossible.

  • Phil

    ISFMA, As i said Knapman was making the point that come what may it was not even in Bliars power to do anything because of the Bloody EU. he was making the point that the Brits we are no longer masters of their own Destiny, IMHO there was no way Rover could or should have been saved,the blame firmly lies with Byers back in 2000?

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Phil – if what you’re saying about the context of Knapman’s remarks (as mentioned by GCooper) is correct, I would still assert it is of great concern that a man who leads a party like the UKIP would choose that poor example – out of a field of hundreds of worthy ones – to illustrate the need to leave the EU. At best, he’s a clumsy politician who doesn’t deserve creditibility. Ergo, neither does the party he leads.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    oops…. I must confess that I don’t know about his credit-worthiness. That should have said “credibility”, not “creditibility”.

  • veryretired

    Almost like a variant of Acton’s observation about power is the aphorism that organizations have a tendency to serve their own internal interests rather than the purposes they were created to perform. Government agencies are a great example of this.

    Even if they start out imbued with fervored enthusiasm for their stated goal, whatever it might be, it doesn’t take long before the main concern becomes winning the continual in-house beaurocratic wars over funding and staffing levels, who gets the nicest offices, etc.

    The reason the voters become disinterested is because they sense there is no real threat to the benefits they’ve become accustomed to receiving as long as an entrenched and relentless network of advocates is there protecting their largess.

    If a significant political figure in British or US politics actually proposed a program which called for the dismantling of major governmental agencies and reducing significantly the funds available for programs, there would be a clarion call for the affected populations to go to the polls and protect themselves, and then voting would become more attractive to many who now ignore the situation.

  • A party which offered to roll back the state would attract significant support, but I think it would also scare off as many people as it attracted. Culturally the UK is not ready to roll back the state in any significant way. Certainly standing up and saying you are going to roll back big government is not yet a way to get elected- imagine all the BBC stories speculating about the sick lying untended in the streets. If we do get a Conservative government next week, it will hardly have a mandate to change anything in a fundamental way.

    A major cultural change needs to take place before Joe Public is receptive to radical change. This will either happen quickly, when things get really bad, or more slowly as liberal arguments win out.

    If we’re hoping for quick change, then perhaps we must hope for a Labour victory. The government seem to be making things so bad so quickly that they could push the country into a cultural change by the end of the decade. In any case, it will get worse before it gets better. Unfortunately, I think it needs to.

  • GCooper

    Bishop Hill writes:

    “A major cultural change needs to take place before Joe Public is receptive to radical change.”

    I agree and it is one of the reasons why my personal targets tend to be more the establishment broadcast media and education (sic) than the political parties.

    Until we can find something to do about the British Brainwashing Corporation and a metastasising university system, designed to do nothing more than churn-out legions of quasi-Marxist “Greens”, it’s hard to see what any anti-statist political party can achieve.

  • Brock

    Brilliant analysis on the particular contentions of UK for the last thirty years.

    It’s always about a contention of one kind or another though. Fear of the status quo being changed. Voting was up in the US last year, much more so than 4 years before that. Bush really is a polarizing figure, and those who want to keep him are more motivated to opposed those more motivated to get rid of him.

    When you’re convinced that no matter who wins your pet issues will remain unchanged, you don’t vote. I think general turnout declines are about the lack of serious contention between the parties.

    Don’t many libertarians believe that government (if it exists at all) should be so unobtrusive and harmless that it hardly matters who runs it? It that were the case, I think turnout would approach zero.

  • htjyang

    I cannot speak to what is happening in Britain. As I live in the US, I can only speak to what is happening to the US. But your impression of declining voter turnout in the US has not been true in the last 2 election cycles. Just last year, turnout was 60.7% of total eligible voters. That is the highest level since 1968.

    The rise in the US has been attributed to intense mobilization of voters by the 2 major parties as well as growing passion for political issues. I’ll let the British people consider how these factors influence British elections.

    Brian’s point about the connection between the growth of the welfare state and decline of voter turnout may have some application for the US situation. In 1996, welfare reform passed and millions were moved off welfare within a few years. 2000 saw an increase in turnout after years of steady decline.

  • GCooper:

    I agree with your analysis of the role of the BBC in maintaining the statist status quo. Libertarianism’s first task in the UK is to negate the Beeb’s influence on public life.

    How to do this? Would we try to make them irrelevant by encouraging alternative media, or destroy them by doing away with TV tax?

  • GCooper

    Bishop Hill writes:

    “How to do this? Would we try to make them irrelevant by encouraging alternative media, or destroy them by doing away with TV tax?”

    Both, I’d have thought and with a good chance of success on the latter point. The BBC tax is highly unpopular.

    I really do believe that the BBC is the most pernicious influence on British political life, staffed top to bottom with Left-Liberals who use the £2.8 billion per annum extorted by threat from the British public, relentlessly to promote a statist worldview which they try to pass-off as ‘progressive’. The proper word, of course, is ‘collectivist’.

    Sadly, even with it dismantled, the damage would take decades to undo – though that’s no reason not to keep on pressing.

  • turnout is always about 10% higher in the marginals- why? because people think their vote actually counts.

    as has been reported plenty of times in this election, only 2% of votes are actually going to make a difference given the vagaries of first-past-the-post.

    if everyone’s vote counted, SO many more people would bother to vote. simple, really 🙂

  • How is the licence fee to be done away with? The Bukovsky/Miller refusenik campaign looks as though it has withered away. I did read somewhere of a legal challenge to the licence fee on human rights grounds, but I don’t know if it ever came to anything.

  • GCooper

    Bishop Hill writes:

    “How is the licence fee to be done away with?”

    Ironically, in view of what I was saying about the relative lack of power of the political parties, through the government.

    The BBC is no friend of the Conservatives, so persuading Tories to scrap the licence is easy.

    As for Labour, the BBC has played right into our hands with its attempt to force Iraq to the top of the election agenda and its thinly veiled campaign to promote the even-further-Left Lib-Dems since the last election (given even greater prominence by the loathsome Greg Dyke’s open conversion, announced today).

    There can’t be much love remaining for the BBC in high Za-NuLabour circles, so that’s the fulcrum for change there. Why should they support an organisation that no longer promotes, but actively compaigns against them?

    Couple lack of support from the two main parties with increasing take-up of non-BBCservices by members of the public and it’s clear to the tide against the hegemony is turning.

    I only wish I could be so optimistic about changing our appalling ‘higher’ (sic) education system!

  • Zanulab aren’t going to privatise the BBC or do away with the licence fee are they? And the Conservatives are going to have a lot of trouble getting into power with the Beeb gunning for them the whole way. I realise that eventually things will get so bad that there will be a Conservative return, but it would be nice if we didn’t have to wait that long. Remember, getting rid of the Beeb is just the first step in trying to roll back the state. I’d like to be around to see things change!

  • There’s a post here which suggests that the licence fee will be a thing of the past in August this year. Don’t know quite what they have in mind, but it may be interesting.

  • GCooper

    Bishop Hill writes:

    “Zanulab aren’t going to privatise the BBC or do away with the licence fee are they?”

    I wouldn’t be too sure. It’s certainly going to be harder to tear them away from the collectivist teat, but there are influential voices within the traditional core of the party (like Gerald Kaufman) who are very sceptical about the licence fee.

    No doubt, when Charlie Kennedy has a smile like the Cheshire cat’s on his moon-faced mug this coming Thursday, Kaufman might find himself with even more supporters.

    Labour has been quite badly stung by the BBC’s hysteria over Iraq and the way in which it has set itself up as a permanent opposition. It is, in many respects, even more ruthess than the Conservative Party when challenged and the thought of the future being spent with the BBC actively working against it is bound to concentrate Labour minds wonderfully.

    These are all Good Things.

  • I would have thought the Zanulab approach would be to get a more compliant man at the top.

  • GCooper

    Bishop Hill writes:

    “I would have thought the Zanulab approach would be to get a more compliant man at the top.”

    They tried that with Greg Dyke. He went native.

  • Verity

    ZaNuLab’s Tessa Jowell (whose husband is under suspicion of dodgy business practices in Italy – although they were doubtless intending to go down to Bethnal Green and share the booty with disadvantaged children) has already said ZaNuLab would keep the licence fee for the next term, anyway. Of course, she can always be ditched, but she doesn’t say anything without her master’s direction, so I assume it’s official policy.

    I don’t see the advantage to ZaNuLab of causing hostility within the BBC. Yes, they’ve been harmlessly and childishly promoting Charlie during this election; but if they’d wanted to do real harm, they would have given the Conservatives a fair shake. They’re still on the socialists’ side; it’s a natural alliance. I cannot imagine Blair unleashing the wrath of the BBC…..

    Other than on the eve of the day he hands over to the Grim Gordon … tee hee hee hee.

  • GCooper

    Verity writes:

    ” I cannot imagine Blair unleashing the wrath of the BBC…..”

    It’s unusual for me to disagree with Verity, but I think I do over this.

    The BBC is at daggers drawn with Labour. From top to bottom, the corporation regards the Iraq war as unforgivable. Beyond that, they dislike Bliar almost as much as many of us who post and comment on Samizdata. The third prong in the antipathy is Nu Labour’s economic policy, which is widely regarded as too Thatcherite (ha!).

    In that sense, Bliar has already unleashed the wrath of the BBC and there’s really no putting the genie back in the bottle. The decision to give Kennedy and the far-Left Lib-Dems support was taken immediately after Bliar’s last victory and, again, I’m afraid I disagree. I don’t think I’d agree that it has been ‘harmless’. It’s become an excellent vehicle of indoctrination, with the ghastly spectacle of Menzies Campbell wheeled out several times a day, every day, to deliver a moral lecture on this or that issue, always portraying the sanctimonious Left’s viewpoint as the reasonable option. Unfortunately, many people seem to have believed it.

    One consequence of this might have been to split the Left vote, but sadly idiot former-Conservatives (including, I’m ashamed to say, members of my own family) have been suckered into voting Lib-Dem , without so much as a clue of what they are actually voting for, because they have been lulled by the BBC into this false belief that it is some kind of ‘nice party’.

    That is how the Tories are in danger of losing marginal seats to a party even more Left wing than Labour – and that’s pretty dangerous as, if nothing else, it is the result of sheer deception.

    What happens next depends on how Bliar and Brown divide the post-election spoils. If Brown, as many expect, swiftly gains power and imposes his dour Scotts control-freakery, he will probably bring the BBC back on side, pretty swiftly. If, on the other hand, Bliar hangs on then we can expect a continued and escalating conflict between the corporation and ‘New’ Labour.

    At some point, I am sure, Alistair Campbell and slithery Mandelson will have decided that the BBC has too much power and cannot be allowed to influence the British electorate so much in the future. If it has been (as I suspect will prove to be the case) capable of bringing the Lib-Dems from a hopeless third to a position from which they can seriously plan the next election with a chance of a significant role in British politics, then our friends in the back office at Za-NuLabour will soon be taking steps to clip its wings.

    We shall see.