We have compared turnouts – or participation rates – at the 2017 UK general election with the most recent elections of our 15 closest counterparts in Europe. We have included only two eastern European states and no Balkan states. Looking at the following table, you will see that only five countries had lower turnouts than the UK – Spain, Eire, Czech Republic, Portugal and Poland. Please note there is a more recent table available on this website.
This is only a snapshot in time but it is worth noting that the 2017 turnout of 68.7% was the biggest of the five UK elections held since 2001, the average of which is 64.1%. But still we only rank eleventh out of sixteen. It is reasonable to conclude from this data that a new twenty-first century pattern of low voter turnout has been established in this country.
Defenders and advocates of our First-past-the-post system, the only one in use in Europe, claim low turnout has nothing to do with the type of electoral system. The data tends to indicate the opposite – that a proportional representation system of voting encourages people to get to the ballot box. There are significant factors. For example, they know that their vote is going to be counted in a meaningful way even if it’s not a winning vote. Also that if they support a smaller party, one that achieves a minimum threshold of say 5%, it will get its fair share of representation in parliament.
The election that grabs all the political attention in France, where they do things differently too, is for Head of State. Their 2017 election returned a record rate of abstentions which demoted them down the table from fourth to eighth place.
The last column in the table projects the millions of additional votes that would have been cast in the UK election had it matched the turnouts achieved by other countries. If made comparable with Belgium, Sweden and Denmark, an astonishing 8 to 10 million more votes would have been cast. In the UK, the biggest statistical grouping in elections is ‘non-voter’ – abstentions!
Very significant inroads could be made into the massive non-voter group were the UK achieving the more modest turnouts of the countries ranked fifth to ninth, when an additional number between 1.3 and 3 million might be expected to turn up at the polls.
However, the experience of a first-past-the-post system is that little can happen under it to evolve political change. Tory or Labour typically secure an unearned mandate for outright government though that was not the case in the odd circumstances of the snap election of 2017. The Tories were returned as the largest party but with no overall majority, prompting them to start talks with the DUP regarding a working arrangement for power. The Tories are visceral critics of PR and despise it in particular for encouraging stitch up deals and giving small parties too much influence. You have to look far and wide for greater hypocrisy than that.