A low turnout landslide: Abstention at the British general election of 1997

Charles Pattie*, Ron Johnston

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)


Turnout at the 1997 British General Election fell to a post-war low of 71 percent, raising worried speculation about long term decline in political participation. On closer analysis, however, this judgement seems premature. Most of the post-war decline in British turnout occurred between 1950 and 1970, and there is no evidence of long term decline in general election turnout between 1974 and 1997. The closeness of the electoral competition is a better predictor of national turnout than a secular trend. Close elections produce high turnout, but widely anticipated landslides (as in 1997) produce low turnouts. The 1997 election was also notable for the small ideological gap between the main parties. Analysis of individual voter abstention in 1992 and 1997 reveals that changes from one year to the other in the perceived difference between Labour and the Conservatives is crucial to accounting for the fall in turnout between the two contests. Turnout in 1997 was low because the result was widely anticipated and because relatively few saw important policy differences between the parties, not because British democracy is in crisis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)286-305
Number of pages20
JournalPolitical Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2001


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