There is a general trend across western democracies of declining turnouts at the ballot box since 1945 – a trend which the political system in the UK does not escape from; several possible explanations for this trend, in the UK specifically, will be discussed in this essay. Perhaps the electorate feel alienated by the First Past the Post system which fails to properly represent minority opinions and interests. Furthermore, the electorate may feel alienated by the concept and supposed utility of voting in a broader sense (an issue detailed in Downs’ paradox). Secondly, a growing apathy towards the government amongst voters could be the cause of the decline. This apathy stems from both a distrust of the political class and, in the case of young voters, exclusion from the political debate. Although true to some extent, these factors do not fully explain the causes of declining turnout over the late 20th century in the UK and the recent uptake in political participation – including turnout. The sharp decline in turnout since the start of the 21st century was caused by a lack of competition at general elections. This also explains why, in recent years, turnout has begun to increase again and why turnout was especially high for recent referendums.
Firstly, the ‘winner takes all’ First Past the Post system almost inevitably leads to a two-party system in which a lot of people’s political views are poorly represented; this phenomenon is known as Duverger’s law (Sachs, 2011, p. 107). Voting third party tends to only increase the likelihood of one’s least preferred party gaining power (Government, 1997), so voters who align themselves with these minor parties may quickly become discouraged from participating in the future because much of the electorate are ‘wasted votes’, suggesting the FPTP system is at fault for declining turnout as it only effectively represents a minority of the population. At the 2005 general election, 70% of votes were ‘wasted’ – 52% on losing candidates and 18% on excess votes – and this is a significant criticism of the voting system as so much of the population plays no part in determining its outcome (Drogus, 2008, p. 257). Although this system certainly has flaws, one could argue recent elections cannot confirm that it is a major cause for declining turnout because previous generations cast votes under the same system with much higher turnout. For example, in the 1951 general election national turnout was 82.5%, whilst the turnout in the 2015 election was 66.1%. However, this approach fails to consider how voting preferences have changed. In 1951, 96.8% of votes went to the two major parties whilst this was just 66.1% in 2015. The popularity of minor parties compounded the shortcomings intrinsic to the FPTP system, with a far higher percentage of the population’s political views being under represented in parliament. However, this argument is fallacious: political power is not reliant on seats in the Commons, for example Cameron’s Bloomberg speech promising an ‘in or out’ referendum on EU membership was caused by voter defections to UKIP at the 2015 election (Goodwin & Milazzo, 2015, p. 127). This proves that minority parties can have significant power under the FPTP system and that there is no compelling argument for voters to stop participating in elections if their party doesn’t gain a majority. Secondly, this certainly fails to account for the recent increase in turnout, with minority parties like SNP growing in popularity. This can best be explained by increasingly competitive elections. The concept that one shouldn’t vote because it seemingly has no affect in the FPTP system is similar to the argument made in Downs’ paradox.
A second possible explanation for declining turnout is the argument (known as Downs’ paradox) that voting is incoherent, because political participation is irrational as an instrumental action to an egocentric end (Meehl, 1977). This is because the chance of your vote having an impact on the outcome of an election is always outweighed by the cost of voting itself. In fact, you are as likely to be killed on the way to the polling station (although neither probability can be accurately determined it is reasonable to say each is p