Two bits of data suggest this is the case. A sharp decline in turnout which never dropped below 72% 1945-1997 (with a peak of 82/83% 1950/51) but in 2001 fell to 59% and only rose 2% in 2005 despite some arguing the contest would be closer. There are a number of factors that drive turnout, one being the extent to which votes matter. While many voted in 1992 to try to ensure victory of Labour or Conservatives, and again in 1997 to kick out the Conservatives it seems, the foregone conclusions of 2001 and 2005 would clear depress turnout. One reason for that is engagement in party politics itself. Tribal politics, which pitted capital against labour, is a feature of history and what has resulted is a lack of ideas in politics and a convergence around the centre ground. In order to differentiate themselves, parties enter into empty oppositionalism and attack politics. There is a lack of a narrative underpinning party manifestoes and so it is more about selling a party as ‘least likely to cut core public serices’ than competing approaches to governance.
Research suggests that this process of marketisation of political policy making and campaigning has a sclerotic effect on voter engagement. It simply promotes a ‘hard sell at any cost’ approach using bold statements that focus on image not substance. While it is argued this is a response to lowering engagement and involvement, so political messages must require only peripheral processing and not deep cognitive engagement, news media this lack of interest may actually be exacerbated by the style of communication. Turnout figures also however mask a stark political reality; that not only is there a lack of choice but that there is also a representational divide in Britian. In 2005 the highest turnout was 77%, the lowest 34%; some voters were engaged! There is a big disparity between Marginal and Safe seats! The former see a keen contest fighting for every vote; the latter see little contest and are likely to have a lower level of representation from their MP.
A further set of indicators relates to trust in politics (standing at 24% currently) and general interest in participation. Leader debates may be the one positive element in the air war. Controls demanded by the parties will reduce audience spontaneity though. On the other hand, newspaper they may also be more like PMQs and full of rhetoric and attack and not setting out clear reasons for electing any of the participants. So the debates may only be peripherally processed and not play a role in providing informed choices. The media will also have a key role to play. The danger here is that focus will be on minute performance issues and political substance will be ignored or forgotten. This may be the case with much media coverage of the contest, their perspective being of a horse race with a focus on strategy as opposed to political choice, and highlighting personal failings and gaffes; does this encourage particapation?
Much has been said about the effect of the Internet, that it will come of age in 2010 and that there may be an Obama-isation of political campaigning. Parties will try to use the Internet to increase awareness but UK politics lacks an Obama, and the parties find it hard to develop participatory campaigns. Activists will be trying to innovate and mobilise but can they touch the hearts and minds of the masses? Due to the Internet, more voices will be heard, and some will be new ones, but largely they are megaphones for the parties. Greater co-production of the campaign will occur but outside party sites, and a lot will be satirical. Because of all this, turnout is likely to show the same mixed pattern as in the last two contests with engagement being higher in the marginals. There may well be a slight average increase if the contest stays close however.