ELECTION 2001: Non-Voters Make Their Point in a Land of Disenchantment ; Apathy Is One Thing. It's Quite Another to Look Hard at the Political Scene - and Decide That No One's Worth Backing

Article excerpt

Campaign trails are supposed to involve walkabouts but this year's begins and ends with a sofa. Forget soapboxes, battle buses, political platforms, studio hot seats and all the usual electoral furniture. It's a bog-standard living-room sofa we're talking about here. The one from which the electorate is being urged to lift its collective bum.

Hectoring ads have already appeared on television. "If you don't vote someone else will speak for you," they say, urging people to do it by post if they can't be arsed to drag themselves to the polling booths. But it isn't only torpor which threatens to make the turnout on 7 June the lowest at a general election in living memory. There are principled reasons for not voting, too.

Take Peter (not his real name), a 29-year-old bookseller from the South- west. The sofa we're sharing is at a hotel in Bristol, where he's been attending a publisher's roadshow. "I'm old enough to understand what having a vote means, and I've always voted before. But I have friends who're younger than me, and like them I've begun to see party politics as meaningless. The real debate now is globalisation - the environment, Third World debt, the multi- nationals and so on. The public school boys in Westminster don't get that; they're too busy having bunfights to see that the world has moved on.

"New Labour has made politics so boring," he continues, "it's no wonder people are opting out of the process. When there's no conviction in politics, only compromise and insincerity, then refusing to vote becomes a positive act."

The number of people voting in general elections has been declining steadily for 50 years. In 1950 and 1951, the turnout was 84 and 83 per cent; in 1997, it reached a new low, 72 per cent. That year, Labour's 13.5 million votes won it a landslide victory; in 1951, it polled 13.9m - and lost. A solid "majority" these days - one big enough to provide a popular "mandate" - is around 40 per cent of the votes cast, which are in turn only two- thirds of those that could be cast. The dread is that the 2001 turnout will reach a new nadir.

Paul Gordon, a 47-year-old psychotherapist from north London, is one of those who will stay away. Though he spends his days close to a couch, it is not couch-potatodom that's making him opt out. "I voted Labour in the past few elections, because I desperately wanted to see an end to Conservatism. But I can't support this government. Its record on refugees, civil liberties, prisons, education, all things that really matter to me, has been awful. The last straw - or Straw - was the response to the May Day demonstration: I've no time for people smashing up shops, but the hyping up and handling of that was disgusting.

"What's dismaying is that the people in government are my generation. They seem nice people, some of them, but what they're doing makes me angry and I'm tired of feeling my support can be taken for granted. So I won't vote. Some friends are cross with me, or bemused, but what's the point of voting just to keep out the worst of two evils?"

Simon, a barrister from south London in his late thirties, is similarly disenchanted. Having campaigned hard for his local candidate in 1997, he felt euphoric - "even epiphanic" - when Labour got in. But he quickly left the party.

"Two things did it," he explains. "The climbdown over tobacco advertising in Formula One racing - after Bernie Ecclestone had given pounds 1m to party funds. …