Election '97: Election? What election? - the don't know factor

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The Independent Online
After six weeks of saturation media coverage, it is clear that many people have been totally turned off by the general election. Some, suffering from political fatigue, have decided to opt out altogether and not exercise their right to vote.

But, extraordinarily, it is also the case that the entire election blitz has passed by many people. Some are totally unaware what the election is about, and who is standing. Many do not have a clue what the parties' policies are.

On Monday in Bedford, one of the 100 marginals Labour must win to get a majority, I met a 22-year-old hotel worker with a wife and two babies to support, who is earning pounds 3 an hour. Yet the young man, who has known nothing but Tory governments, is convinced that if Labour gets in he will lose his housing benefit and all state benefits would go to people on the dole.

He asked which day the election was, and then what would happen if Labour won. When told the Labour leader would be the next prime minister, he wanted to know who the leader was.

A minicab driver, Gerry, in Ilford, an Essex constituency Labour hopes to win, had been told that Tony Blair's victory would be followed by free travel for all on London Transport. Why should he vote Labour and put his livelihood in danger?

He could not bring himself to vote Conservative, so he would not vote at all. He is also trying to find alternate employment because of the "free travel" threat. When asked who gave him this nugget of opposition transport policy, he recalled that it was a customer.

Political ignorance is not determined purely on educational or class grounds. The day I met the pounds 3-an-hour Bedford hotel worker, I ran into a customer in a bar in Fleet Street much frequented by people allegedly in the know such as journalists and lawyers.

A barrister was saying that he was not going to vote Conservative because "they are a shambles". But people would be mad to vote for Labour because "Blair would be out on his ear, with some leftie like Ken Livingstone taking over within months".

He apparently got this from "security sources". The same sources had also revealed to him that more than 40 Labour MPs were suspected former Soviet spies. The barrister is an officer in the Territorial Army.

David Denver, a reader in politics at Lancaster University, said: "There is no doubt that a lot of people, especially young people, have got no interest in the electoral process. They do not feel an interest in the question of government and effectively they have fallen outside the system."

Mr Denver, convenor of the Election Studies Group, the body of senior psephologists, continued: "These people have been disenfranchised because they tend to read tabloid newspapers, normally from back to front, and thus would not have access to the kind of information they would need to make political judgements."