In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Understanding Non-Voters

Non-voters are explicitly and implicitly conjured in many political arguments. (Edited: DncnH)

Non-voters are explicitly and implicitly conjured in many political arguments. (Edited: DncnH)

John Rentoul, columnist for The Independent, identified seven “idiot left memes” expounded on Twitter and other social media sites, including the belief that “millions of non-voters would vote Labour if armed with a bold programme”. This was later expanded into a top ten list of ‘Corbynite denialism’.

Such a claim about non-voters is implicitly made in the posts of George Aylett, a prominent Labour activist and the party’s 2015 candidate in the Wiltshire South West constituency [1]. Mr Aylett wrote:

Labour should not move right to win over the 24% who voted Tory.
Target the 76% who didn’t.
We need hope. End austerity. Move left.


Given that the “76% who didn’t” contains Green, UKIP, Liberal Democrat and SNP voters, as well as all non-voters, it is not clear how a political party could ‘target’ this disparate group in any meaningful way.

In addition to the problem of targeting, data provided by the British Election Study [2] demonstrates that constituencies with higher Labour vote shares are associated with lower turnouts.

Data: British Election Study. Visualisation: Tableau.

On the chart, the unemployment rate distinguishes groups of different constituencies. (Data: British Election Study. Visualisation: Tableau.)

This is not the claim that Labour successes cause this lower turnout.

Indeed, there is a broadly negative and stable relationship between the constituency unemployment rate in the 2011 census — a proxy for relative deprivation — and the overall voter turnout. This relationship between unemployment and voter turnout, where constituencies with higher unemployment beget lower turnout, holds for each region and winning party. This suggests that these constituencies have particular political conditions that make a Labour electoral victory and lower voter participation more likely.

Regardless of the reason for this relationship, it holds that, in the 2015 General Election across Great Britain, seats with Labour MPs had an average 61.7% turnout, compared to 68.5% for Conservative MPs. This means any strategy to target non-voters would disproportionately focus on bolstering Labour-held citadels.

Black Screen

Next, we turn to this persistent misunderstanding by Labour campaigners about non-voters. The voter turnouts are not merely a function of Labour party policy. Survation, a polling company, conducted a survey of non-voters from the 2010 General Election — including those ineligible to vote — on behalf of Lodestone Communications [3].

When presented with variety of reasons as to why these non-voters abstained during the last election, a plurality of 27% responsed with ‘Other’. The main listed responses was that they “don’t believe my vote will make any difference” and parties and candidates “are all the same”. When asked what would make persuade them to vote in a parliamentary election, a plurality of respondents — once again — said ‘Other’. The largest named category was receiving a leaflet from a candidate.

Non-voters have numerous reasons and preferences.

Non-voters have numerous reasons and preferences.

As a cohort, non-voters have a chronic core. As noted by the 2014 parliamentary select committee report on voter engagement [4]:

Of the respondents to the survey, over half of those who had not voted in the 2010 general election had never voted in a general election. This included 23% of those aged over 55, who must therefore have missed at least eight consecutive general elections.

These non-voters were not perturbed from their parliamentary abstinence by the Greens — fusing environmental worries with a renationalisation programme — and could not be tempted by the ongoing mitosis of left-wing candidates and parties. It is unclear as to how a specific choice in the Labour leadership contest will disturb their slumber.

Non-voters are not a homogeneous bloc, but are often treated as a black screen for campaigners and commentators to project their own desires onto.

For voters who consider Labour to be the Conservative’s simulacrum, there are other voters who believe that the Conservatives are Labour’s shadow. A startling divergence in policy may change the minds of people who say they are “all the same”, but then mean they vote for parties other than Labour.


Moreover, the hypothetical ‘swing’ from non-voting to Labour ballots should be considered. Whilst there are a few very close races, it would take — assuming a stasis on the existing votes — 34.7% of present non-voters to back Labour to win 94 seats in the House of Commons. This is the amount required for Labour to return a parliamentary majority, which is an implausible shift.

It would take a substantial swing to affect many parliamentary seats. (Data: British Election Study 2015. Visualisation: Tableau)

It would take a substantial swing to affect many parliamentary seats. (Data: British Election Study 2015. Visualisation: Tableau)

Whilst it remains laudable for all party leaders to offer their ideals, appealing uniquely to non-voters is not a coherent strategy.


[1] BBC, 2015. Wiltshire South West Parliamentary Constituency. Available from: [Accessed: 31st July 2015]

[2] British Election Study, 2015. Updated 2015 General Election Results Data Released. Available from: [Accessed: 31st July 2015]

[3] Survation, 2013. Apathy in the UK? A look at the attitudes of non-voters. Available from: [Accessed: 31st July 2015]

[4] Parliament UK, 2014. Voter engagement in the UK — Political and Constitutional Reform. Available from: [Accessed: 31st July 2015]



This entry was posted on August 1, 2015 by in National Politics and tagged , .
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