Latest turnout news: bring on the curate’s egg

A rather mixed tale emerges from the latest election turnout figures I’ve been looking at. Given how I’ve previously blogged about how figures showing turnout on the up usually get overlooked or misquoted by the media, it is only fair to present the less good evidence too.

First, the Glasgow North East Parliamentary by-election. Widely reported as having the lowest turnout ever in a Scottish by-election, the 33% turnout figure is certainly not good. The fall on the last general election, at 11%, puts it in the mid-range of Scottish by-elections this Parliament though, with the other changes having been -4, -6, -12 and -20. This is more a case of a by-election taking place in a seat with low turnout than of low turnout newly blighting a constituency.

Of course, the problem with comparing back to 2005 is that in 2005 there was not a full set of candidates in Glasgow North East, as Michael Martin was standing for re-election as Speaker. Add to that boundary changes and to make a half-decent comparison with the past you have to go back to Glasgow Springburn in 1997. No Speaker standing for election, a full set of candidates and this seat makes up most of the current Glasgow North East.

The by-election’s turnout was down 26% since the 1997 figure which again, when compared with other seats, is middling rather than dreadful. For example, the change in turnout compared with 1997 in the four Scottish by-elections in the 1997 Parliament were -36, -30, -25 and -20.

No perfect benchmark for comparisons, but on any of the imperfect ones the Glasgow North East decline in turnout compared with a previous general election looks typical rather than at the worst end of the scale.

As you may have noticed from previous comments, I’m sceptical about non-like for like comparisons in turnout, except when you are forced to make them, as above. However, given the media’s love of non-like for like comparisons, it is worth highlighting the most recent one that should have journalists reporting stories of record turnout if they were being consistent in their willingness to make non-like for like comparisons.

That’s because turnout at the last round of local elections in England was the highest for many years:

2009 39%
2008 35%
2007 38%
2006 37%
2005 (General election)
2004 (Widespread all postal ballots)
2003 36%
2002 33%
2001 (General election)
2000 30%

Given the different rounds of councils up for election in different years, there isn’t a simple comparison that can be made.

But on the same basis that Glasgow North East was reported as a record low turnout (i.e. just look at the crude total and don’t worry about the frame of reference), then this year’s English local elections were the highest this century.

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