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The silence of 30 million voters

About the author
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit.

As a recent Democratic Audit report underlined, European elections are interpreted mostly for the messages they send to national governments, not as mandates for the future direction of the EU. The insistence of democratic theorists that this is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs will not cause voters to lose any sleep, however many MEPs turn out to have been punished for the misdemeanours of MPs. But the contradictions run deeper still when MPs seek to interpret the messages they have been sent via elections to a different parliament, using a different electoral system. Perhaps most of all, though, we need to remind ourselves that, for every elector who has spoken, there are two who have not. And, in 2009, it may well have been the silent voters who mattered most.

To be fair, it is difficult to make out the silence of 29 million unused ballot papers amid all the political noise. Imagine them stacked up, each one printed with a unique number which would have linked them to a single voter on the electoral register - voters who never arrived at the polling station.  Then there is the silence emanating from the eligible, but unregistered, voters. We don't even know how many of them there are - possibly another 3 million, perhaps more. Even the psephologist with the well trained ear will struggle to hear them, but they are unmistakably there. The silence of these abstentions should be deafening.

However, silence is uncomfortable, and notoriously hard to interpret. Analysts therefore focus on the reassuring and familiar noise of millions of voters telling their elected representatives different things all at once. The appeal of doing so is clear. You really don't need to be a political analyst to know that the obvious sound amid the din is that of the New Labour electoral coalition collapsing. Of course, future historians will argue about the precise moment when New Labour was pronounced dead. Personally, I would make the case for 8 May 2009: when the Daily Telegraph published its first revelations about MPs' expenses and the IFS demonstrated that social inequality had reached its post-war peak under Prime Minister Brown, alongside a fall in the incomes of the poorest 10 per cent. Those details barely matter right now. Haven't the voters simply confirmed that they the nation, not just the statisticians, have seen the flaws in New Labour's ‘third way'?

Not quite. Just to avoid any doubt, it is the abstainers, not the voters, who have made the difference. It is not the allegedly fair-weather New Labourites of the metropolitan middle class who have brought the party's electoral foundations crashing down. Labour support in London held up far better than it did anywhere else. The job of collapsing the New Labour coalition has been left to Labour's core supporters in the de-industrialised regions of northern England, and in Scotland and Wales. By and large, they have done it silently - for a million or so regular Labour voters appear to have left their ballot papers uncollected. By opting not to vote Green or Liberal Democrat, absentee Labour voters in two English regions have helped translate a static BNP vote into seats in the European Parliament. Sometimes in politics, silence and noise are virtually indistinguishable.

As for the noisy minority - the actual voters -  their contribution has been greatly exaggerated. Just over half of them voted for the main three parties compared to about six out of ten at the last European elections back in 2004. There were almost as exactly as many Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters in 2009 as there were in 2004. If the expected seismic shift didn't happen, it is because it already had 10 years ago; prior to the introduction of PR for European elections in the UK, in 1999, the three main parties still gathered the support of almost nine out of ten voters.

This time around, an extra 300,000 people have voted for the Greens, an extra 150,000 have voted for the BNP, and an extra 90,000 have voted for the SNP. These are not dramatic ruptures, they are continuations of established trends. The biggest change compared to 2004 is that 1.7 million fewer people voted in the European elections. If we want to understand what's happening to our politics, the noise emanating from the electoral minority should probably be taken as a distraction. Once we take that step, we'll be drawn back to that disturbing hush again and again.

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