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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Elections Expert Warns Of "Marked Downturn" In Turnout Due To Voter Apathy

Polling station (Alamy)

3 min read

Lord Robert Hayward has warned that there could be a “marked downturn” in turnout at the next general election, as parties choose more local candidates in an attempt to fend off voter apathy towards Westminster.

The Tory peer and elections expert told PoliticsHome that he believes voter numbers could be down in May’s local elections as well as at the general election, but that political parties are going some way to try to appeal to the electorate on a local level as people have been turned off by national politics. 

“I do believe sadly that chances are that there will be a marked downturn in turnout at the next general election, but I think it will also be shown at the local elections," he explained.

“In local elections the turnout is always low, but I think it may well be even lower than usual in six weeks' time.”

There are concerns, particularly among Conservative campaigners, about the impact that voter apathy could have in certain seats when it comes to the General Election. 

Door-knockers in some areas believe that while they are detecting some instances of voters directly switching their vote from Tory in 2019 to Labour, Liberal Democrat or Reform this time around, far more frequently they are seeing voters who would want to back the Conservatives, but plan to stay home on polling day. 

Hayward recognises the sense of apathy among the Conservative voter base, but also thinks that support for Labour is “weak”. 

“What we have now is undecided Conservatives," he continued. "A number of them will vote, whether they vote Conservative or Labour or Reform or whatever we don’t know yet. 

“But there is also a very clear sign in the polls that there is this large group for undecided ex-Conservatives but support for Keir Starmer and the Labour Party is weak. It’s nowhere near as strong as it was in 1996/97.” 

To highlight his point, he raised the by-election that was held in Tamworth in October 2023. The vote was won by Labour’s Sarah Edwards, who overturned a majority of almost 20,000 secured by then-Conservative MP Chris Pincher in 2019. 

Edwards won with a turnout of around 36 per cent. There was a similar by-election the year before Tony Blair was elected, in the seat that was then known as South East Staffordshire which covers much of the same area. At that vote, Brian Jenkins was elected for Labour with 62 per cent turnout, after the death of the sitting Conservative MP. 

Turnout in by-elections is usually lower than at general elections, but “all the indications are that people are displaying an apathy towards politics,” Hayward said. 

At a local level, one way parties are trying to tackle this apathy, Hayward believes, is by selecting local candidates. 

“There's no question that in part that is an attempt to appeal towards the local voter and potential apathy,” he added. 

Although it is more than that, Hayward felt it was important for parties to appeal to voters on a local level about issues in their community. 

“Part of that process is saying we know what you’re interested in, we're not taking you for granted, we are choosing somebody who is like you," he explained. 

“There's no question in part that is to overcome the question of apathy.”

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