Tomorrow night, politicians and pundits will pore over the results of the English local election results to see whether they represent good or bad news for Tony Blair, Iain Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy. But there is a much bigger question about what happens tomorrow – how many of us bother to vote for anyone at all.
Local elections have rarely gripped the political pulse of the nation. Indeed turn-out in local elections in Britain typically secure a lower turn-out in Britain than anywhere else in the European Union, typically running at just 40 per cent. But since Tony Blair became Prime Minister, matters have become decidedly worse.
In the first local elections after New Labour secured the reins of power, the average voting figure was a mere 30 per cent. And after improving only slightly the following year, the figure dropped back again to just below 30 per cent in 2000.
The omens are no better for this year. In a recent ICM poll, even fewer voters said they were certain to go to the local polls than did so when ICM asked the same question four years ago, just before the 1998 local elections. Of course, low turn-out is not a feature only of recent local elections. Turn-out in the 1999 European elections was even less, 23 per cent. And fewer people voted in last year's general election than in any election since 1918.
So while we have perhaps never been convinced that local government is powerful enough to be worth voting for, the more recent record low turn-outs probably reflect wider trends.
But what these might be sets off considerable debate. Recent analysis of the British Social Attitudes survey suggests Labour's pervasive large poll lead and a lack of clear differences between the parties are strong candidates. If so, then local turn-outs are unlikely to rise until Britain has a credible opposition again.
But, unsurprisingly, ministers are hoping that other measures might do the trick. And tomorrow will provide vital evidence on whether their ideas might work. The first idea is to change how local government works. The ministers believe local government will appear much livelier and relevant to voters if they get the chance to vote for a local mayor rather than an unknown councillor. So tomorrow, voters in seven districts – Doncaster, North Tyneside, Watford, Hartlepool, Lewisham, Newham and Middlesbrough – will be choosing the first directly elected mayors outside London.
If the advocates of directly elected mayors are right, the turn-out in these seven contests should be considerably higher than elsewhere tomorrow. But the portents from London's first mayoral election two years ago, when just one in three voted, are not good.
Ministers' second idea is to change how we vote. Perhaps, they reason, voters in today's busy electronic world are neither willing nor able to go to the polls to put mark a cross on paper using a pencil.
To test this, local voting experiments are being held. Two sets are particularly important. First, in a repeat of an experiment shown two years ago to have some favourable impact on turn-out, the election in a dozen or so districts is being run wholly by post.
But more redolent of the electronic age is a set of some half-dozen new experiments using electronic voting, both in the polling station and over the internet, text-messaging and voting by phone. If these secure a higher turn-out, expect serious consideration the same thing happening in future general elections too.
John Curtice is deputy director, ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends.Reuse content