Politics is no longer Britain's cup of tea

Experts say voter turnout in the May 5 general election could plunge to a century-low 53 percent.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to elections, Daniel Kemp doesn't take long to make up his mind.

"I'm not voting," the 20-year-old snorts while waiting for his mom outside a superstore in this gritty south London neighborhood. "Me and my mates, we're more likely to vote for Goal of the Season than in a general election," he says, referring to a popular competition on a TV soccer show.

Kemp is hardly alone. With less than two weeks to the May 5 vote, the big question facing British politicians is not who votes for them, but who votes at all. Experts predict the lowest participation in a century.

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Turnout that persisted above 70 percent for decades after World War II is expected to plunge to 53 percent this cycle, according to Professor Paul Whiteley of England's Essex University. Turnout in the 2004 US presidential vote was 61 percent.

Turnout is expected to be especially dire among young people - and worse still in inner-city districts like Vauxhall. "People of my generation do feel guilty if we don't vote, but 18- to 20-year-olds don't," says Mr. Whiteley. "They don't see party politics as interesting."

His view is reinforced by a brief survey of Vauxhall youths. "I don't believe in the system. It doesn't work for me," says one young south Londoner who gave his name only as Darren. Another, Sarah Adderson, says: "The only thing I have picked up from this campaign is that [leader of the Liberal Democrats] Charles Kennedy has had a baby."

Experts cite numerous reasons for voter disaffection. The campaign has been lackluster, as the main three parties jostle for the center ground. And Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to win his third straight election easily.

But there are more deep-seated reasons that raise serious questions about political health in this "mother of all democracies."

So great is the concern that a national body, the POWER inquiry, has been established to investigate voter apathy - and generate solutions.

"People feel much more that ... taking part in elections doesn't have an impact on real things that change their lives," says POWER director Pam Giddy.

Some critics charge that the increasingly presidential nature of British politics is a turn-off. Martin Bell, a former independent member of Parliament, says Parliament is too subservient to the prime minister. Mr. Bell, who is now managing a campaign for a candidate running against Mr. Blair in his Sedgefield constituency, also cites the erosion of trust in politicians.

"The problem of trust is at the bottom of the distaste for public life," he says. "The prime minister hardly ever appears in Parliament. He hardly ever votes himself" in parliament, he adds. The inference is clear: Why should the electorate vote, when the country's leading politician doesn't?

Then there is the dramatic shift in British political geography. A generation ago, Britain's electoral map looked like a Piet Mondrian painting: red slab in the north for Labour, blue block in the south for Conservative - a split evoking the contrast between coast and hinterland in the last US presidential vote.

Today, the map is pixellated like a faulty computer screen.

Ms. Giddy says it's part of a cultural shift. "You don't have strong allegiances to communities and parties in the way you did, say, when living in a mining town meant you voted Labour as an extension of your community," she says.

So what can be done? Martin Bell says that political parties have to "reconnect" with the public at the grass-roots level and "adopt policies that appeal to people's ideals as well as their interests."

The POWER inquiry, meanwhile, is looking at dozens of ideas tested elsewhere to renew political interest.

"Some of it is about rethinking elections: voting by Internet, reducing the voting age, placing a none-of-the-above category on the ballot paper," wrote the body's chairwoman, Baroness Helena Kennedy, recently. "The most interesting, however, is about what goes on between elections - innovating in a way that gives citizens a precise influence over the political decisions they really care about."

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