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The great turnout quandary

February 17th, 2010

Will it be up, down, or about the same?

A couple of weeks back Nick Palmer, MP, wrote that he was looking forward to reading my thoughts on turnout and the reason I’ve waited for so long is that, frankly, I’m only now forming a view.

For the big thing about this election is that for only the second time in 31 years is there a serious chance of the ruling party losing power. That of itself adds an extra dimension.

The below 60% argument? There’s a case that is often articulated that electors are so brassed off with MPs over the expenses scandal that they are either turning to the minor parties or simply won’t bother to vote at all. That was expressed quite strongly ahead of the June 2009 Euro Elections and I nearly lost a lot money betting on that outcome

Yes the final figure – just under 35% was down on the 38% of five years earlier but that proportion had been artificially inflated in several English regions in 2004 by the all-postal voting experiment. So I don’t think that those elections provide us with any real guidance.

Will it be on the high side – 65% plus? The general theory is that when change is in the air more people will turn out. We saw that in the London Mayoral election in May 2008 and, that month, in the Crewe & Nantwich by election.

In the latter the figure was barely a couple of points off the 2005 general election and there were suggestions that there the big increase were in the constituency’s Tory wards. Significant numbers came out to give Labour a bloody nose who had not bothered three years earlier.

So why didn’t we see something similar at Norwich North in July 2009 when the Tories had only their second by election success since 1982? Maybe it was the strange circumstances of that encounter which only happened because of expenses.

I think the polling is going to have an impact. If it continues to suggest that it is getting closer then that will add to public interest and the desire to stop an outcome on either side of the line. All surveys that have probed the matter have found that a significant proportion of electors do care and I think we’ll see that in the turnout.

I think that it’s going to be highly variable depending on the circumstances in each seat. In the 450 or so constituencies where the outcome is not really in doubt then it will be not that much bigger than 2005.

But in the key battle-grounds where voters have a real choice between booting Brown out or impeding the return of the Tories then we’ll see quite significant increases reaching more than 70% in many of them.

So my favoured segment is 65 – 70%. In Betfair’s election turnout market this is just under 2/1 the same as you can get at Ladbrokes PaddyPower make it a 6/4 shot.

Mike Smithson

PB – “Political Website of the Year”