Low turnout is a poor use of democracy - and could mean a contested result
It’s generally a fool’s game to predict poll turnout, but there are some signs which can give you a clue.
One is how likely people are to say they’ll vote. Today with a week to go before the referendum, it’s been revealed that just 62 per cent of Brits say they’ll definitely vote in the EU referendum.
Despite this being in many ways being more important than any General Election – it’s a once-in-a-generation vote that will affect the UK for decades to come – the figure is lower than last year’s General Election turnout of 66 per cent.
But what’s more worrying is that people typically overstate their likelihood to vote in these polls; it’s a social signifier, and people think it makes them look good to say they’re using their social capital. So we could actually end up with turnout even lower than that.
Look behind the headline though and you see a concerning demographic divide. Just 55 per cent of those from poorer C2DE backgrounds say they’ll definitely vote on June 23 – compared to 67 per cent of wealthier ABC1 voters.
What that means is that this referendum could be decided by one social group on behalf of another. That surely makes for bad decision-making and bad democracy.
We’ve already seen that just 47 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds say they’ll vote next week, compared to 80 per cent of over-65s.
Little of this is a surprise. This debate has been entirely steered by wealthy, older men (forthcoming stats from the think tank CoVi entirely bear this out).
This feeds through to how younger people talk about the referendum. The website LadBible have just revealed that out of 35,878 comments by 18 to 24-year-olds on EU referendum-related posts, just 241 named individual politicians. They are not into the ‘big political beasts’; they are interested in the issues.
But a low turnout, combined with a tight result and the demographic divide we’re already witnessing, will surely only add to claims about the referendum result being somehow ‘illegitimate’.
The Press Association’s projection of the outcome of the referendum currently has Remain and Leave tied on 50 per cent.
A tied result on a low, unequal turnout is a recipe for disputes, particularly as there have already been legal threats surrounding this referendum from the Leave side – following the government’s pro-EU leaflet to every household and the extension of the voter registration deadline.
Nobody wants an inconclusive result. Yet the quality of debate has hardly inspired Scottish-style levels of engagement.
The grassroots campaign has been lacking, while at the top all that people have seen is a de facto Tory leadership election.
Let’s hope, with one week to go, the campaigns do everything they can to get the numbers up so this referendum is genuinely the result of a diverse national conversation.
And more importantly, so we don’t spend the next two years arguing about the legitimacy of the result.
Josiah Mortimer is a regular contributor to Left Foot Forward. You can follow him on Twitter @josiahmortimer.
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