Apathy in the UK? A look at the attitudes of non-voters

Voter apathy and low election turnout are well reported as being serious problems in British politics. These issues are not only important for the health of our democracy, but are also a key consideration in which electoral strategies political parties should adopt. Should they focus on mobilising their core vote and risk alienating undecideds and non-voters, or should they try and win over new supporters, even if this is at the expense of neglecting their base? Whichever strategy they adopt, political parties would do well to try and better understand the large segment of the British population who do not vote and are not engaged with the political process.

Recent research by Survation on behalf of Lodestone Communications took a detailed look at the attitudes of non-voters on a wide range of issues (non-voters are defined as those who did not vote in the 2010 election; this figure includes those who were too young or otherwise ineligible to vote in 2010). The findings provide valuable insights into the demographic profile of this group, their outlook on life, the issues they care about and their perspectives on power and politics. Moreover, the survey contains much that will be of interest for anyone trying to understand why people don’t vote, how to persuade them to vote, and the implications for future elections.

In terms of attitudes, interests, and outlook, the survey reveals that voters tend to be slightly more optimistic about the future than non-voters: 45% think life will be somewhat or much better in 2020 compared to 40% of non-voters. However, non-voters aged 18-34 have more or less the same level of optimism about the future as voters in the same age bracket, with more than 50% in both categories believing that life will be somewhat or much better in the future. Interestingly, 2010 non-voters who said they would nevertheless vote in the next general election are among the most pessimistic of all (45% think life will be somewhat or much worse in the future, compared to 28% of 2010 voters who intend to vote again in the next election).

Despite some of these differences, voters and non-voters share many of the same concerns. Economic worries rank highly among all groups: for example, the top three concerns for young people, whether voters or non-voters, are not having as much money as they would like, not being able to pay the bills and fears of unemployment. Equally, there are strong similarities across the groups about what issues politicians should be prioritising: ensuring that we have a stable economy is identified as the top priority by a majority of voters and non-voters alike, with job creation not far behind. That said, voters and the population as a whole seem more likely to want politicians to focus on getting Britain out of the EU (13% of all respondents said this was the one thing they wanted politicians to focus more on, but this figure is far lower for younger people taken separately). This issue is less important to non-voters, who showed greater relative concern for the economy, jobs, and tackling poverty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, non-voters are less likely to trust politicians to tell the truth, but not by a large margin – 9% of voters trust politicians to tell the truth compared to 6% of non-voters. However, the massive proportion of people overall who do not trust politicians shows this is not an issue about voting or not voting but a more general phenomena of the public’s low regard for our elected representatives. That said, non-voters are also more distrustful of journalists and the ‘ordinary man or woman in the street’, and by wider margins than in the case of politicians, which suggests that efforts to tackle political disengagement and low voter turnout may need to go beyond just the relationship between politicians and the electorate.

Given the many similarities between voters and non-voters in terms of outlook and the issues they care about, perhaps the most important findings of the survey are those relating to the reasons for not voting and the factors that might convince non-voters to go to the polls on election day. Among those who did not vote in the last general election, the top reasons for not voting were: not believing that their vote will make any difference, that the parties and candidates are all the same, a lack of interest in politics, and not having enough information or knowledge to choose (see above chart). In addition to these factors, a large percentage of those who did not vote in the last election and do not intend to vote in the next election either said their main reason for not voting was that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates.

Turning to what might persuade non-voters to vote in the next general election, from a list of 8 options, 17% of respondents said receiving a leaflet about a candidate would be most likely to persuade them. Not counting those who gave their response as ‘other’ (39%), this was the highest ranked option. The next most likely were more information as to how and where to vote (12%), a personal visit from a candidate (12%), and more information on how to get a postal vote (12%). The other options, such as knowing your neighbours are voting, and phone calls, emails and texts about candidates, scored very poorly and seem highly unlikely to persuade people to cast their vote (see above chart). Those who don’t intend to vote in the next general election were especially unresponsive to traditional campaigning techniques. And as a final consideration, the 39% of respondents who seem to be looking for something else to persuade them shows that political campaigners need to identify new ways to win the votes of the many people who didn’t use theirs in the last election.

Survey was based on a sample of 2,096 British adults, conducted from 3rd-9th September. Data was weighted to the profile of all British adults, by age, sex, region, household income and 2010 vote. Survation is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables are available here.


– By Nicholas Barker

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