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Gary Younge
Vanishing voters

Even as colonies around the globe were denied the ballot and MPs in Northern Ireland were left to die on hunger strike, the vote was hailed as an inalienable right. It was our passport to modernity and civilisation; the cornerstone of democracy; like death, the great leveller.

Almost regardless of where you stood on the political spectrum during the latter half of the 20th century, you could always see a reference point to support the innate, wholesome decency of the electoral act. It was why we fought the Nazis and why we will fight the commies if we have to, said the patriots. Suffragettes died for it, Martin Luther King lived for it and Nelson Mandela went to jail for it, said the internationalists.

But somehow voting has begun to look, to many, like brussels sprouts left out over night. We understand there is good in it, but in the cold light of day we have the lost the taste for it and, given the choice, would rather go hungry for the time being.

The last election saw the lowest turnout since the second world war. The next, according to a recent Guardian/ ICM poll, promises to be even lower. The number of people who say they would be certain to vote if there was an election tomorrow stands at 60% of the electorate, compared with 64% at the same stage in 1997. In a parliamentary byelection in Leeds in July 1999, turnout dipped to a postwar low of 19.6%.

To blame this all on the ideological vacuity of mainstream politics prompted by Labour's drift to the right, is tempting but simplistic. The turnout for elections to the Greater London Assembly, where Livingstone stood as a clear left choice, was also low. When the leftwing independent Dennis Canavan vacated his Westminster seat of Falkirk West at the end of last year, prompting both a leftwing and nationalist surge, the election turnout was the lowest in Scotland for more than 50 years.

The stay-away might not be entirely Labour's doing, but it is almost completely its problem. Its biggest threat come the next election is not the Tories, but turnout. The two times that the Conservatives have beaten Labour in the popular vote since 1997 - in the European elections of 1999 and the local elections of 2000 - the problem has not been Labour voters switching sides, but Labour supporters refusing to take sides.

This has always been the principal glitch in New Labour's electoral arithmetic. It has operated on the calculated assumption that as it went foraging for votes on the right and centre, there was a hard core of Labour supporters who would vote for it come what may, because politically they had nowhere else to go. The trouble is, it got its sums wrong. What it didn't bargain on was its supporters not going out of the house.

This, too, is reflected in the polls. The Conservative vote has hardened slightly since the last election with the likelihood of Tory supporters turning out to vote rising slightly on a statistical scale from 9.02 in January 1997 to 9.10 now. Meanwhile the likelihood of Labour voters going to the polls has dropped sharply from 9.11 to 8.68.

Blair has referred to this as apathy, but it is something far more dangerous. The issue is not people who cannot be bothered but people who are fed up with being bothered. Many of them were, in the past, the foot soldiers of active democratic citizenry - activists who not only voted but spent their spare time going out at night and trying to get other people to vote too. When they sit on their hands it is not apathy but disillusionment, the seeds of which were sown before the last election and were already bearing fruit on May 1 1997.

Ask any Labour supporter to recall just one image that signified the sweetness of victory that night and they all say the same thing - Michael Portillo losing his seat. On a night when Labour won the largest majority of any single party since 1924, bringing with it a new generation of political leadership and a record number of women MPs, the high point of the night was not Labour being voted in, but the Tories being kicked out.

After 18 years of one-party rule that was maybe as it should have been. In any case, it is almost certainly as Tony Blair had intended it to be. The whole thrust of the last campaign was to reassure middle England that it could trust him by lowering expectations of how different a Labour government would be.

To the extent to which these low expectations delivered him a decisive victory at the last election, this strategy was successful; to the extent to which these low expectations are defining him in the run-up to the next election, it is proving a huge liability. For a healthy democracy is not founded just on the number of people who turn up to vote, but on the choice that they have when they get there.

The issue is not whether there is any difference between Labour and the Tories - there patently is - but whether there is sufficient difference for there to be any moral argument for putting your cross next to one instead of the other.

It is no good evoking Nelson Mandela in this regard. They may have cheered him at last year's party conference, but under current asylum laws, had he managed to flee apartheid, he would have been detained when he reached Britain. It is difficult to imagine that he would have wanted to swap Robben island for Campsfield detention centre.

Claiming you're not as bad as the other lot might work in opposition, but it is a feeble excuse after four years in power. The rise in pensions and teachers' pay, for all their faults, suggest the Labour leadership has at least partly understood that this time people want to vote for, rather than against, something.

It also suggests that the very part of the movement that New Labour once regarded as dead is actually keeping it afloat. It is the left, inside and outside the party, that has kept the issues of pensions and public sector pay at the fore and the unions who backed it during the fuel crisis.

Meanwhile it is the right which has proved the greatest liability by descending into the kind of vain bickering, venal indulgences and personal rivalries that has led voters, according to a recent poll, to believe that Labour is sleazier than the Tories.

Under those circumstances, Millbank would do better to promise even higher pensions and better public services than appeal to our sense of active citizenship and moral rectitude come polling day.

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