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Editorial: Apathy rules the waves

So the weeks and weeks of posing, posturing and politicking are over. The endless hours of TV reporting and radio coverage and the thousands of miles of newspaper column inches have resulted in just one notable thing: not the return of another Labour government, but the lowest voter turnout since universal suffrage.

What a triumph for the assembled ranks of politicians and pundits! The biggest turn-off in political history and yet no one can say they are truly surprised. After the politicians had spent the previous month stomping up and down the country stirring up apathy wherever they went, the voters turned away in their droves. And then sighed a huge collective yawn as the moment of irrelevance passed.

Out of the barrage of opinion polls to hit the headlines during the election the most interesting was the BBC exit poll conducted on the day itself. Not because of its (fairly accurate) prediction of a Labour landslide, but because it dared to ask a cross-section of non-voters, excluded from the headline figures of voting intent, why they hadn't bothered. The results were fascinating.

The poll showed that a significant proportion of voters hadn't bothered to trouble the tellers because they thought the result to be a foregone conclusion. This is obvious enough, as turnout fell most in safe Labour seats and least in Labour-held marginals where there was a real chance of the Tory Party making a gain. Nevertheless, this is enough to account for only a fraction of the mammoth drop in turnout from the fairly dismal 71.4 percent in 1997 down to the record low 59 percent this time around.

The main reason for the drop in turnout is evidenced in the fact that 77 percent of respondents in the BBC survey said that they wouldn't be voting because they viewed the parties to be essentially “the same”. Allied with this was the supporting view that politicians of all persuasions “couldn't be trusted”.

Herein lies the reality of the situation, something that socialists have been arguing for many years and which now appears to be the established perspective held by a very sizeable sector of the working class of wage and salary earners. The fact that it appears to be held particularly strongly by former Labour voters too is significant. A 34 percent turnout in a Labour heartland constituency like Liverpool Riverside is evidence enough that Labour can no longer rely on a solid working-class vote, for in areas of previously bedrock support it is viewed as being essentially no different to the Tories.

There are still many who argue that Labour is “the lesser evil” but their numbers are dwindling – literally, in fact, as there were nearly three million fewer Labour voters this time round compared with when Blair first got in. Ten and a half million votes, in fact, would have been a humiliation for Labour years ago – as was the case when Neil Kinnock got just short of this for Labour in the Thatcher landslide of 1987. In 2001 it is enough to be heralded a landslide.

In reality, of course, it was a landslide in name only and Blair knew that only too well. It was etched on his face at his count in Sedgefield as he heard his personal vote drop by several thousand. There is clearly now a large chink in the armour of New Labour and it is only the ineptness of the opposition provided by the other mainstream parties that has stopped Labour from becoming a true laughing stock, most of all among the Party's most “natural” supporters.

In the months to come we promise that we shall be monitoring the continued progress of New Labour – if progress is the right term – and subjecting them to the closest scrutiny from a socialist perspective. For the Labour Party has tricked and bamboozled the working class for too long. Now that the trick is wearing thin, we will do all we can to expose what Labour is really about and the interests Labour is keen to defend. We do this in the hope that next time the refusal by millions of voters to back the bamboozlers of the working class will turn into something more positive and pro-active than mere abstention.