John Curtice: There are signs that public interest has been stimulated

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The Independent Online

When Gordon Brown finally announced the date of the election earlier this month, politicians of all parties had one fear in common – how many people would consider it worthwhile to vote for any of them?

At the last two elections turnout reached a low point. Before 2001 turnout had never fallen below the 70 per cent mark at any election held since the end of the First World War. But in that year just 59 per cent made it to the polls, while at 61 per cent the position in 2005 was hardly any better.

Subsequent events hardly seemed likely to help increase the numbers voting. The MPs' expenses scandal undermined such little trust in politicians as the public still had. Meanwhile the British Social Attitudes survey had revealed that there has been a notable drop in the proportion who feel they have a duty to vote.

But, of course, unlike its two predecessors, this election is being fought against the backdrop of a financial crisis and a future squeeze in public spending. That ought to have helped persuade voters that this time the outcome matters. Meanwhile, thanks to the Liberal Democrats' surge, an election which always looked capable of producing a hung parliament has become a three-horse race with an outcome of which nobody can be sure.

There are clear signs that these developments have helped ignite public interest, despite voters' initial mistrust and disengagement. According to the latest ComRes polls for The Independent, around two-thirds now say they are certain to go to the polls. When the same company polled just before the election was called, only 53 per cent said they were certain to vote.

Even more significantly the current two-thirds proportion saying they are certain to vote compares with just 57 per cent giving the same answer shortly before the last election. Maybe turnout will still fail to reach the 70 per cent mark, but it does now appear to be noticeably higher than in 2001 and 2005.

Yet some people are still more likely to vote than others. As ever, younger people are still less likely to take an interest; the proportion saying they are certain to vote is still somewhat less than half. In contrast, around three-quarters of older voters are inclined to vote.

This could be bad news for the Lib Dems whose advance has been particularly strong among young voters. Nick Clegg's hopes of securing second place in votes might yet turn on his degree of success in getting his voters to the polls.

But Labour too has reason to worry. Pretty much every opinion poll published during the course of this campaign has found that Labour supporters are less likely to vote than their Conservative counterparts. Relative lack of enthusiasm among Labour voters is one thing that this campaign has seemingly not managed to change.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

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