General Election 2024

Election panel: Will turnout be higher or lower than last time?

Our group of election experts on whether politicians are doing enough to get out the vote

June 21, 2024
Image: Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Stock Photo

There are only two weeks to go until Britain goes to the polls. Is Labour headed for a landslide? Are the Tories headed for disaster? Prospect has invited 11 politics experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues as the parties campaign for our votes. Yesterday, we asked our panellists about the downsides of a very weak opposition.

Today, we asked a question suggested by a reader, Richard from Greenwich and Woolwich—about what they predict voter turnout to look like this year.

Emily Lawford: Do you expect overall turnout to be higher or lower than in 2019? And why?

Zoë Grünewald: Lower I’m afraid. Talking to voters there is just a lot of disillusionment. It seems that the scandal of the last few years has damaged the Tories, yes, but mostly it’s damaged parliament and politicians as a whole. Lots of people don’t differentiate and they see Westminster as a cesspit of corruption and lies. Then there's the issue of first-past-the-post, with lots of voters feeling like their vote doesn’t matter anyway. And all the rumours of this stupid “supermajority”, meaning voters no longer feel they have to hold their nose and vote for a Labour government, nor do the disenfranchised Tories feel there’s much point trying to keep them in government.

Frances Ryan: With a clear idea of which party will win (and with the media suggesting a landslide), high levels of voter distrust, and an uninspiring campaign from the major parties, conditions aren’t exactly ripe for a rush to the polling booth. Voters who have previously come out for the Conservatives could see no point. Those who are inclined to vote Labour may think they aren’t needed. But I think it’s also worth talking about the other type of non-voter: those who are disenfranchised (people in poverty, the young, renters, and those without degree-level education), those who don’t ever exercise their right or will struggle to with the new voter ID rules. This group is often ignored, if only because they are much harder to win over than those who have previously voted in an election. But a healthy democracy needs more of them to have their say, especially for those who wish to push the balance away from older home owners.

Peter Kellner: Are we allowed “don’t know”? I see two opposite forces at work, and I’m not sure which will be greater. 1) An angry determination to kick out the Conservatives and, for some, enthusiasm for a fresh Labour government; versus 2) for many, a lack of enthusiasm for either main party, combined with the near certainty of a large Labour majority, so a lack of the kind of excitement that comes with a closely-fought contest.

Philip Collins: I would like to add another don’t know but I am much less scholarly in my reasoning than Peter. I just don’t know.

Frances Ryan: Yes, as much as journalists like to pretend we know, we don’t. I remember volunteering for Labour on polling day in 2017 and seeing the uni students arrive chanting “Jeremy Corbyn.” You get an impression then and only then where the wind is blowing.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: In short, lower—because neither candidate is offering anything particularly transformational to people’s lives at a time when they’re crying out for it. Many would argue that’s due to the financial situation but that, combined with two pretty uninspriring leaders, is probably going to lead to lower turnout.

Tim Bale: Decades of comparative research on turnout points to two factors likely to depress it. The first is voters feeling that the result is a foregone conclusion. The second is voters feeling that a change of government isn’t that likely to make much difference to their lives. Given that both seem to apply—some would say in spades—to this election, a low turnout looks pretty likely to me.

Philip Collins: How low do you think, Tim? Also, I am always struck by the fact that there are always a lot of people who don’t vote. It is one of the handy perennials of British politics—especially on the left—that we will get the uninterested to vote. How much do we know about them as a group? Are there any effective ways of encouraging more people to vote?

Tim Bale: Below two-thirds, I’d guess?  But that’s only a guess. As to the uninterested and non-voters: the only thing that research suggests works on that score—apart from the relatively marginal impact of weekend voting and proportional representation—is compulsory voting. I’m a fan. But I’m very much in the minority on that!

Peter Kellner: Compulsory voting is a great idea that is never likely to overcome the argument that people should not be punished for exercising their right to abstain. I prefer bribery to punishment. Lower the voting age to 16, and give every voter under 20 a £20 voucher for doing their civic duty. The total cost would be around £50m—a small price for getting young adults into the habit of voting.

Tim Bale: That is a great idea (albeit not one I’ve heard of happening anywhere or something that’s been researched [I’d love to see it polled!])—and cheap at half the price, as they say.

Matthew Lesh: My working assumption, as most people have said and for the same reasons, is for a low turnout election. Both major parties are not inspiring, albeit for different reasons, and the result does seem predetermined. The emergence of Reform, which is exciting a type of voter that might not otherwise turnout, could change that—though my understanding is that its party infrastructure in most parts of the country is precisely zero, and therefore the national polls are probably exaggerating like during byelections.

Compulsory voting is an awful idea. The premise of a liberal democracy should never be force. Nor do I think you should bribe people to vote. It’s entirely legitimate for people not to want to vote, that is expressing a preference. Though I would be open to moving election day to the weekend, to make it easier for more people to turn out.

Philip Collins: We force people to do jury service. Compulsory voting is a tiny deprivation of liberty which would change politics. No government would have been elected with an almost exclusive focus on the elderly.

Matthew Lesh: If this election is going to demonstrate anything, exclusively focusing on the elderly is not a wise electoral strategy.

Marie Le Conte: I have a halfway house of a proposal! Multiple studies have shown before that if you vote in the first election you’re eligible for, you’re then more likely to keep voting. We should make voting compulsory but only for everyone's first election. Would hopefully build some habits in people without feeling too stringently authoritarian.

Peter Hitchens: Sorry, I just don’t know.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Tomorrow, our panel will be back to answer yet more burning questions about the general election. Got something to ask our experts? Submit your questions!