For those seeking to boost voter turnout, Scotland is a false friend

Did the indyref make a permanent difference to voter apathy? Marc Charbonne, CC BY-SA

A huge and well known problem for democracy across the developed world is that voter turnout has been falling in elections for a number of years. It is particularly noticeable in towns and cities, which reflects the fact the problem is worst with the less well-off sections of the electorate.

The UK is no exception – but last September’s Scottish referendum made the world sit up and take notice. The referendum strongly bucked the downward trend, producing an 84.6% turnout, well above the 66% of voters who voted in the previous two UK elections. It was heralded as a great example of democratic engagement, with strong impetus at grassroots level that saw activists on almost every street corner and lively debates in church halls and community centres the length of the country. According to former Scottish Nationalist deputy leader Jim Sillars, it was “a unique civic exercise in self-political education on a massive scale”.

Scotland still appeared to be feeling this “referendum effect” at the time of this May’s UK election. The 71.1% turnout was an increase of 7.3 points on 2010, compared to a one-point increase elsewhere in the UK. And it is worth noting that Scotland was particularly disengaged from politics in the years before the referendum – this was the first time Scotland recorded a turnout higher than the rest of the UK in an election since 1979.

For politicians and political scientists looking to revitalise long-term declines in voter turnout across the board, a view has developed that Scotland might point to an answer – particularly for deprived communities. So we decided to look more closely at voter behaviour in Scotland during different recent elections to see if this interpretation was correct.

Glasgow under the microscope

We focused on Glasgow, since nowhere in Scotland has voter disengagement been more evident than in its biggest city. Despite Glasgow’s historic reputation of Red Clydeside, rent strikes and social movements, it has become politically disengaged, lagging Scottish turnout in every vote since 1945 (see figure below).

Glasgow turnout deficit 1945-2015

This low political engagement along with Glasgow’s other woes tends to be linked to poverty. The Scottish deprivation statistics show that despite the city’s brand image as a modern post-industrial city, it houses the lion’s share of Scotland’s poverty. Glasgow has 11.4% of the Scottish population, but three times that share of the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods (see figure below).

Most deprived Scottish neighbourhoods by council area

Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2012

In the years since the decline of shipbuilding and other heavy industry, Glasgow’s population became gradually less inclined to vote than the rest of Scotland. Since the mid-1990s, the gap has grown markedly. In the elections for the Scottish parliament, the first of which was in 1999, Glasgow turnout has been eight to ten percentage points lower than the Scottish average. Even in the referendum, Glasgow’s 75% turnout was the lowest in Scotland.

Deprivation, turnout and the referendum legacy

To get around these problems, we obtained detailed voting information for Glasgow City Council’s 240 polling districts for the 2011 Scottish election, the referendum and this year’s UK election. For each polling district, we used the Scottish deprivation statistics to give them a score for average deprivation.

What we found was very interesting. At the 2011 Scottish election, a district’s deprivation score made a big difference to voter turnout. In the way that we political scientists describe these things, deprivation explained 54% of the variation in voting across Glasgow between different districts.

At the 2014 referendum the relationship with deprivation became much weaker, explaining only 27% of the variation. In other words, the usual link between turnout and deprivation was strongly undermined by the referendum. The turnout in nine polling districts remained below 55% at the referendum, but only one of them was among the city’s most deprived districts. Two of the nine were among the city’s least deprived areas.

Yet in the general election, Glasgow reverted to type. Deprivation became a very good predictor of turnout once again, explaining 50% of the voting variation between districts. This suggests that the turnout drives in Glasgow’s deprived communities during the referendum by the likes of the Radical Independence Campaign were successful. But this “referendum effect” looks to have been temporary. When voters from deprived communities were asked at this year’s election to vote again for politicians and parties, as opposed to the question of independence, they were no more likely to do so than they had been in 2011.

We can only speculate about why more deprived voters were more inclined to vote in 2014. Undoubtedly it suggests they turned out to address a meaningful substantive issue rather than the election of politicians. Possibly there was an element of “what have we got to lose?” among them. As a leading analysis of the Scottish referendum vote has highlighted, those more inclined to vote to Yes were in the lowest income quartile (56.4%), working class (53.6%) and in social rented housing (61.9%) (the overall vote in favour was 45%).

Yes Scotland undoubtedly tapped into – and, to a degree fueled – disenchantment with Westminster rule and austerity policies. Independence was projected as an opportunity to break the mould of “normal” British politics and create a more social-democratic style of polity. Perhaps for the same reasons, last week’s Greek referendum highlighted that the Athens poor were far more inclined to take a chance with their political future than the more affluent communities in the Greek capital.

But our Scottish analysis suggests that such mould-breaking decisions don’t re-engage more deprived voters permanently. Contrary to what the initial headline figures for Scottish turnout at the 2015 UK election suggested, in deprived areas the legacy of the referendum appears to have evaporated very quickly. Those looking for ways to replicate Scotland’s referendum turnout boost for deprived communities in their neck of the woods seem to be relying on a false friend. It would appear that the “referendum effect” was a fleeting one, rather than a durable legacy. Sorry to be the bearers of bad news.