Voter apathy has reached an all-time low, threatening to embarrass the Government, which seems keener on elections and referendums than any previous administration.
As a result, the task of enticing the public out of their homes and into the polling booths is increasingly being devolved on ad executives.
This week the Central Office of Information, together with the Welsh Office, is likely to decide which agency – Ogilvy & Mather or HHCL & Partners – will create the 2m campaign to promote next May’s Welsh Assembly elections.
It is a considerable challenge. Only half the Welsh electorate turned out last September for the devolution vote and only 50.3 per cent of those backed the Government’s Yes campaign – just a quarter of the population. Welsh Office spokesman Alan Cummins says: “There was a feeling the low turnout could have been a protest that the prize [the Welsh Assembly] was not worth it.”
This is a sensitive issue for the Government and for Wales – the Assembly will not have tax-varying powers like the new Scottish Parliament, possibly accounting for the indifference of the Welsh electorate.
“If you describe elections as a market, it would be in decline because turnouts are getting lower,” says one advertising executive. He believes the Thatcher years caused increased cynicism among voters and a decline in respect for institutions and figures of authority.
So a voter campaign that plays on political personalities and/or institutions is bound to be unpopular. Witness the 35 per cent turnout by Londoners on the mayorial referendum: the key issues were overshadowed by personalities – Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingstone among them.
Advertising agencies say the answer could be to take the personal approach. That means outlining what effect the election result will have on the voters and their families.
Gallup analyst Rory Fitzgerald agrees voter turnout depends on how much interest the campaign generates and how much people perceive is at stake. “The turnout for the Welsh devolution referendum was much lower than in Scotland. The difference would seem to be that Scotland had a real passion for devolution, Wales seemed less interested,” he says.
On May 1 1997 the UK public had a chance to change 18 years of Conservative rule and only 71 per cent bothered to vote – the lowest number since the Second World War.
The situation is desperate considering electors are being asked for their opinions on a regular basis as the devolution machine rolls on.
Scotland will vote three times next year under three different systems for the Scottish Assembly, local councils and European Parliament.
If ad agencies cannot help persuade people that voting does matter, one of the basic precepts of New Labour’s strategy – participation – will be seen to be floundering.
Night club The Ministry of Sound is familiar with the problem. It wanted to encourage youth participation in elections and approached London agency BMP DDB to launch a political youth voter campaign called “Use Your Vote” in the run-up to the last general election – on a shoe-string budget.
BMP account planner Nikki Crumpton says no matter how good the campaign is, you cannot force people to vote, but you can educate them about the differences using their vote can make.Crumpton says: “We found it wasn’t youth that rejected politics but politics that had rejected youth. There was a lot of grass-roots activism and interest in subjects such as racism, sexism and the environment, but they just weren’t interested in party politics.”
BMP created a controversial press and cinema campaign showing, for instance, a racist loudly voicing his opinions with the strapline “Use Your Vote. You know he’ll use his”. Crumpton says: “It is almost impossible to say if it worked, but it got the target group talking.”
If ever there was a time when voters needed encouraging to head for the polling booth, it is now.
The English local council elections last month suffered from an abysmally low turnout – only 32 per cent. Political pundits blamed it on election fatigue and Labour said its supporters had become complacent.
A MORI survey on local council elections in April revealed less than half – 48 per cent – said they always vote. Sixteen per cent said they never vote and ten per cent said they don’t believe their vote makes a difference.
A House of Commons home affairs Select Committee is reviewing the electoral system and has heard some innovative suggestions on how to boost turnout: Labour MP Martin Linton thinks voters should be paid 5 but bribery must be the last resort, apart from compulsory voting.
Suggestions put forward in a MORI survey for increasing turnout include changing the election day to the weekend and using digital TV to vote from home.
But, according to MORI, telephone voting is the most popular option. It would encourage 40 per cent of people. Next most popular are polling stations in shopping centres.
MORI chairman Robert Worcester says of the 1997 General Election campaign: “Labour’s secret weapon was word-of-mouth advertising.”
The best an advertising campaign can hope for is to inspire interest and provoke debate. Until people can sit at home in the comfort of their living room and vote on the phone, even the passionate can be put off turning out by a few drops of rain.