When Harold Wilson lost the 1970 election to Ted Heath he blamed the shock result on a voter turnout of only 72%. The turnout had not been that low since the election that brought Wilson into parliament in 1945. The UK has a poor record for turnout after world wars as the 1918 vote was the lowest turnout on record at 57%, but that was possibly influenced by two groups of people who were unused to voting: poor men and women over 30, both of whom received a vote for the first time. The 72% became the new normal, although Wilson returned to power in February 1974 on a 79% turnout. He turned that minority government into a majority of three seats with a 73% in October 1974 and turnout remained in the 70s during the years of Conservative rule under Margaret Thatcher and John Major with turnouts of 76% (1979), 73% (1983), 75% (1987), and 77% (1992). This changed with Tony Blair returning Labour to power, although he first became prime minister on a 71% turnout, but his subsequent victories were with 59% (2001) and 61% (2005).
The low turnouts at the beginning of this century may reflect the fact that the Labour Party became increasingly associated with the wealthy elite and developed an attitude of taking working class votes for granted. There was a subsequent increase in the following two elections with 65% (2010) and 66% (2015). Wilson's complained of 72% would appear unattainable if it were not for the 2016 referendum turnout of 72%. The only comparable turnout this century was in Scotland during the 2015 general election when the SNP rode the wave of enthusiasm and disappointment of the 2014 independence referendum (in which 85% voted) to win all but three Scottish Westminster seats when 71% of the Scottish electorate voted.
The 2016 referendum was a high turnout compared to general elections, but fares less well besides the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, which attracted 85% of voters to the polling stations. Not all referendums generate such large turnouts, with the Scottish devolution referendums attracting 64% (1979) and 60% (1997) respectively. Wales is generally less enthusiastic about self-rule and registered devolution turnouts of 59% (1979) and 50% (1997). Wales also had a 2011 referendum on extending devolution powers, which attracted the second lowest referendum turnout of all time at 36%. Bottom place goes to the vote on the London Mayor and Assembly, which brought out just 34% of voters in 1997. There were two referendums in 2011 with the UK wide one on electoral reform faring little better than the Welsh one on 42%. Another referendum to attract less than half of voters was the failed attempt to introduce devolution to North East England, which attracted 47% of the electorate. The only referendum to come close to the Scottish independence one was when 81% of the Northern Irish electorate voted on the Good Friday Agreement. That was an apparent improvement on the first Northern Irish referendum, which was held in 1973 on whether to remain in the UK or unite with the rest of Ireland. 59% of the electorate voted, which is quite a high turnout considering that most nationalists (then about 35% of the population) boycotted what was the UK's first ever referendum. The one referendum turnout remaining is that for the 1975 EU referendum, which attracted 65% of voters to the polls in what was the first UK wide referendum.
The British electorate are notorious for only being interested in general elections and this is clearest in European Parliament elections, which hit a record low of 24% in 1999. In that context the referendum turnouts are unsurprising, although voter turnout was higher (boycotts notwithstanding) when issues of sovereignty were put to the people of Northern Ireland or Scotland. The 72% turnout for the 2016 EU referendum was larger than any UK wide vote since 1992, but the enthusiasm for it varied across the four nations. The leave vote in England was from a 73% turnout, marginally ahead of the leave victory from 72% of the Welsh electorate, but the remain voting nations generated less enthusiasm, with a 67% turnout in Scotland and a 63% turnout for Northern Ireland. The often forgotten fifth nation of Cornwall (nowadays constitutionally treated as an English county) had the highest national turnout at 77% and the largest national leave majority at 13%. The only non-UK area to vote was Gibraltar, which had an 84% turnout and a 92% majority for remain.
It is unclear what the reason is for the declining voter turnouts this century, but the fact that they were at there lowest when the Labour Party appeared uninterested in the working-class vote is probably relevant. The 2016 EU referendum enthused the country more, on a larger electoral roll, than the general election of the previous year. It is unclear whether than means that more working class voters went to the polling station than would happen at a general election, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a sizeable number were voting for the first time in their lives. That may mean no more than a recognition that in a referendum every vote counts and that this referendum was one worth voting on. That latter point is probably the only conclusion that can be safely drawn from these turnout figures: that leaving or remaining in the EU was a referendum worth voting on. Although possibly not for voters in Northern Ireland, despite the worries over Brexit creating a 310-mile EU external border.
If there is an easy answer to why those left behind by the English and Welsh class system voted leave it is because for once there was a referendum where every vote counted. Normally the electoral system works in such a way that working-class votes have little effect on the result and consequently a large proportion of working class people stopped voting. The UK parliament is elected by a first past the post system, in which one successful candidate is elected based on how many votes they received and no other consideration is taken into consideration. The only UK wide referendum other than the two EU ones was an attempt to change this, but the electorate voted to keep the first past the post system. This system means that a lot of votes are wasted efforts because the outcome is a foregone conclusion in most seats. It is only in a small number of seats that whether there is a Conservative or a Labour government is decided.
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