General Election 2019: The untapped influence of the non-voter

By Daniel Wainwright
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Not going to vote? You're not alone. The reasons vary - cynicism, feeling powerless, feeling uninformed - but across the UK, almost a third of the electorate didn't use their right to choose their MP in the last few elections.

But if you think your vote doesn't matter, you could be wrong. The number of non-voters is greater than the sitting MP's majority in 551 out of 650 constituencies: that's more than 80%.

Take Boris Johnson's constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, for example: 23,716 people voted for him in 2017, giving him a majority of 5,034. However, 22,798 voters on the electoral register didn't turn out at all. That means he has a theoretical majority of just 918 over those who didn't vote.

That puts him just beyond the 142 seats where there were more non-voters than people who voted for the winning MP.

In some seats the gap between the winner and second place was incredibly tight. In 11, the MP won by fewer than 100 votes. Yet in each of those there were between 12,000 and 30,000 registered electors who didn't turn out.

To put it another way, if all those unused ballots had been counted towards a single separate party, it would have won more than 140 seats in the House of Commons.

These figures include spoiled and rejected papers among those who voted. However, they only take account of those who were registered to vote.

That means the actual number of non-voters could be even higher because millions of potential voters are either incorrectly registered or not registered at all.

Young people will make up a big share of non-voters. The British Election Study estimates that between 40% and 50% of those aged 18 to their mid-20s voted in 2015 and 2017 compared with about 80% of voters aged in their 70s.

The data on turnout by ethnic group is patchier, but the Runnymede Trust says self-reported turnout in 2017 ranged from 74% to 91% for people of South Asian descent, 51% to 85% for black Caribbeans and Africans, and 82% to 83% for white British voters.

The deadline to register to vote for the 2019 general election is Tuesday 26 November.

Constituencies with the smallest majorities after the 2017 election. .  .

In more than one in five seats there were so many non-voters they outnumbered the people who voted for the winning MP in 2017.

So, where could non-voters have had the most impact?

In some areas more than four out of 10 voters stayed away altogether.

But in some places, even if every single non-voter on the register went to the polls, the outcome still wouldn't change. There were 99 of these seats in 2017, and their number has been increasing.

Among them is Islington North, where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is the local MP. In 2017, 40,086 people voted for him, ahead of just 6,871 for the Conservative candidate in second place, giving Mr Corbyn a majority of 33,215. He increased his share of the vote by 12.7% and was safe from any change of heart by the 20,184 people who did not vote at all.

'Sick of Brexit news'

In West Bromwich West, almost half of registered voters did not turn out at the last general election. And in the town of Wednesbury, some people are not swayed by their untapped power.

Danielle Robbins in Wednesbury
I just don't believe anything any of them say
Danielle Robbins
Trainee retail manager

Trainee retail manager Danielle Robbins, aged 39, said: "The news is all just about Brexit, every single day. I didn't watch the news for two years because that was all that people talked about and then when I did start watching again, they were still going on about it."

Safiya Elwin in Wednesbury
Politicians are just saying things to make themselves sound good
Safiya Elwin
Mother and fashion student

Safiya Elwin, a 32-year-old fashion student and mother of seven, said: "They just want votes off people and then we don't matter any more.

"Politicians just do things according to their own plans and predictions."

If people could vote directly for their leader, in the way the USA elects its president, she might be more inspired.

"That would at least give us more of say."

What puts off people from voting?

Everyone will have their own reasons.

"Some people feel it's pointless as they are just one out of tens of thousands of voters in their constituency. There's a sense of powerlessness to it, that this isn't going to help them get their voice heard," says psychologist Helen Haste, emeritus professor at the University of Bath. She's researched civic participation among young people.

"A lot of people don't feel a particularly strong duty to vote, while some feel that as citizens it is their obligation to. Others see it as a privilege."

If people feel strongly about an issue and know that the result could have an effect, they are more likely to vote, says Prof Haste.

The Brexit referendum in 2016 bucked the trend: turnout was 72.2%, as opposed to 69% in the 2017 general election and 66.2% in the 2015 election.

Are young people registering to vote?

They are. More than a million of those who have registered to vote since September are under 25. They made up almost a third of those signing up for a polling card.

What about me? Am I registered to vote?

Every year each household is sent a form to check that the voter registration records are up to date.

It lists everyone of voting age the local council is aware of living at the property.

However, adding a name to the form does not register the person to vote. Each person has to register individually for a ballot paper.

Adrian Chiles talks to habitual non-voters about why they choose to abstain in The Unheard Third on BBC Radio 4 - 11am, Monday 2 December.

Interactive content: Upgrade your browser for the full experience. Alternatively, click here for a list of election terms and what they mean.

Election translator

What do all the terms mean?

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  • Backbencher

    Term for an MP who is not a minister. They sit behind the front benches in the House of commons.

  • Ballot

    Another term for vote.

  • Ballot box

    A sealed box with a slit in the lid. Voters place their ballot papers through the slit into the box. When polls close the boxes are opened and counting begins.

  • Ballot paper

    Paper containing a list of all candidates standing in a constituency. Voters mark their choice with a cross.

  • By-election

    An election held between general elections, usually because the sitting MP has died or resigned.

  • Candidate

    Someone putting themselves up for election. Once Parliament has been dissolved, there are no MPs, only candidates.

  • Canvassing

    During a campaign, active supporters of a party ask voters who they will vote for and try to drum up support for their own candidates.

  • Close of nominations

    The deadline for candidates standing to send in the officials forms confirming their place in the election. This is usually __ days before polling day.

  • Coalition

    When two or more parties govern together, when neither has an overall majority. After the 2010 election, the Conservatives and Lib Dems formed a coalition, which lasted for five years.

  • Confidence and supply

    A agreement between two political parties where the smaller party agrees to support a larger one without enough MPs to have a majority in parliament.

  • Conservative

    The Conservative party is

  • Constituency

    The geographical unit which elects a single MP. There are 650 in the UK.

  • Dead cat

    In politics, a 'dead cat' strategy is when a dramatic or sensational story is disclosed to divert attention away from something more damaging. The term comes from the concept of an imaginary dead cat being flung onto a dining table, causing the diners to become distracted by it.

  • Declaration

    The announcement of the election result in each constituency.

  • Deposit

    A sum of £500 paid by candidates or their parties to be allowed to stand. It is returned if the candidate wins 5% or more of the votes cast.

  • Devolution

    The delegation of powers to other parliaments within the UK, specifically the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.

  • Devolved parliament

    The Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies are elected by voters in those nations of the UK. They make laws on policy areas controlled by those nations such as health, environment and education.

  • Dissolution of Parliament

    The act of ending a Parliament before an election. When parliament is dissolved there are no MPs, but the prime minister and other senior ministers remain in their roles.

  • Electoral register / roll

    A list of everyone in a constituency entitled to vote. Also known as electoral roll.

  • Exit poll

    An exit poll is a poll of voters leaving a voting station. They are asked how they have voted, and the results are used to forecast what the overall result of the election may be.

  • First past the post

    Term used to describe the UK's parliamentary election system. It means a candidate only needs to win the most votes in their constituency to win the seat.

  • Gain

    When a party wins a constituency from another party, it is said to have "gained" it from the other.

  • General election

    Election at which all seats in the House of Commons are contested.

  • Hung parliament

    If after an election no party has an overall majority, then parliament is said to be "hung". The main parties will then try to form a coalition with one or more of the minor parties. Opinion polls have suggested that a hung parliament is a strong possibility after the 2015 general election.

  • Hustings

    A meeting a which candidates address potential voters. The word comes from an old Norse word meaning "house of assembly".

  • Independent

    A candidate who is not a member of any political party and is standing on their own personal platform. To qualify as an official political party, a party must be registered with the Electoral Commission, the organisation which administers elections in the UK.

  • Landslide

    The name given to an election which one party wins by a very large margin. Famous landslides in UK elections include Labour's victory in 1945, the Conservative win in 1983 and the election which brought Tony Blair to power in 1997.

  • Left wing

    A person or party with strong socialist policies or beliefs.

  • Liberal Democrat

    The name of the party occupying the centre ground of British politics. They were formed from the former Liberal party and Social Democrats, a Labour splinter group, and combine support for traditional liberalism such as religious tolerance and individual freedom, with support for social justice.

  • Majority

    A majority in Parliament means one side has at least one more vote than all the other parties combined and is therefore more likely to be able to push through any legislative plans.

  • Majority government

    When one party wins more than half of the seats in the Commons, they can rule alone in a majority government

  • Mandate

    Politicians say they have a mandate, or authority, to carry out a policy when they have the backing of the electorate.

  • Manifesto

    A public declaration of a party's ideas and policies, usually printed during the campaign. Once in power, a government is often judged by how many of its manifesto promises it manages to deliver.

  • Marginal

    Seats where the gap between the two or more leading parties is relatively small. Often regarded as less than a 10% margin or requiring a swing (see below) of 5% or less, though very dependent on prevailing political conditions.

  • Minority government

    A minority government is one that does not have a majority of the seats in Parliament. It means the government is less likely to be able to push through any legislative programme. Boris Johnson has suffered a number of defeats in Parliament over a no-deal Brexit because he does not have a majority.

  • MP

    Strictly this includes members of the House of Lords, but in practice means only members of the House of Commons. When an election is called Parliament is dissolved and there are no more MPs until it assembles again.

  • Nomination papers

    A candidate must be nominated on these documents by 10 voters living in the constituency.

  • Opinion poll

    A survey asking people's opinion on one or more issues. In an election campaign, the key question is usually about which party people will vote for.

  • Opposition

    The largest party not in government is known as the official opposition. It receives extra parliamentary funding in recognition of its status.

  • Party Election Broadcast

    Broadcasts made by the parties and transmitted on TV or radio. By agreement with the broadcasters, each party is allowed a certain number according to its election strength and number of candidates fielded.

  • Percentage swing

    The swing shows how far voter support for a party has changed between elections. It is calculated by comparing the percentage of the vote won in a particular election to the figure obtained in the previous election.

  • Polling day

    Election day

  • Polling station

    Place where people go to cast their votes

  • Postal vote

    People unable to get to a polling station are allowed to vote by post if they apply in advance.

  • Proportional representation (PR)

    Any voting system where the share of seats represents the share of votes is described as proportional representation. The UK currently has a first past the post system.

  • Prorogation

    Parliament is usually prorogued, or suspended, ahead of an election or Queen's Speech to allow for preparations. In September 2019 Boris Johnson attempted to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, but the Supreme Court later ruled the prorogation unlawful and MPs returned to Parliament.

  • Psephologist

    A person who studies voting and voting patterns.

  • Purdah

    This is the time between the announcement of an election and the final election results. During this period media organisations have to ensure any political reporting is balanced and is not likely to influence the outcome of the election.

  • Recount

    If a result is close, any candidate may ask for a recount. The process can be repeated several times if necessary until the candidates are satisfied. The returning officer has the final say on whether a recount takes place.

  • Returning officer

    The official in charge of elections in each of the constituencies. On election night they read out the results for each candidate in alphabetical order by surname.

  • Right wing

    Someone who is right wing in politics usually supports tradition and authority, as well as capitalism. The Conservative party is regarded as the main centre-right party in the UK.

  • Safe seat

    A safe seat is a constituency where an MP has a sufficiently large majority to be considered unwinnable by the opposition.

  • Spin room

    The attempt to place a favourable interpretation on an event so that people or the media will interpret it in that way. Those performing this act are known as spin doctors.

  • Spoiled ballot

    Any ballot paper that is not marked clearly, eg with more than one box ticked or with writing scrawled across it, is described as a spoiled ballot and does not count towards the result.

  • Tactical voting

    This is when people vote not for the party they really support, but for another party in order to keep out a more disliked rival.

  • Target seat

    In theory, any seat that a party contests and held by a rival is one of its targets. In practice, a target seat is one that a party believes it can win and puts a lot of effort into doing so.

  • Turnout

    Turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot on polling day.

  • Vote of no confidence

    It is usually the leader of the opposition, currently Jeremy Corby, who calls for a vote of no confidence, in an attempt to topple the government. If more MPs vote for the motion than against it, then the government has 14 days to try to win back the confidence of MPs through another vote – while the opposition parties try to form an alternative government. If nothing is resolved, then a general election is triggered.

  • Westminster

    The UK Parliament is located in the Palace of Westminster in the centre of London and the term is often used as an alternative to Parliament.

  • Working majority

    A working majority in Parliament is what a government needs to carry out its legislative programme without risk of defeat. It means the government can rely on at least one more vote than the opposition parties. However, in the current Parliament, the government no longer has a majority and MPs from a range of opposition parties have joined forces to form a parliamentary majority big enough to defeat the government over plans for a no-deal Brexit.

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