Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to Minutes of Evidence (Volume II)



We have examined some of the contextual factors surrounding turnout at local elections in an attempt to offer some explanations. (See Table). The following key points emerge:

1. Low turnout in the UK is not purely a local government election phenomenon

The UK consistently shows a low turnout in elections. Comparing figures in the most recent national elections only Finland, Ireland, France and Portugal have lower turnouts than the UK. A similar pattern holds true in European Parliament elections. The UK's turnout is very low at 36 per cent—only the Netherlands and Portugal are lower. There is no attempt to dispute the disappointing turnout in British local elections, but it is important to consider whether this reflects wider voter apathy in comparison with the rest of the European Union.

2. Voting systems

One feature which makes the British system distinct from most other counties concerns proportional representation. Of the countries listed in the league table of local election turnout, only Britain has no element of proportional representation in their sub-national elections. The extent of proportional representation elsewhere varies, but a clear majority uses this system in some way in local authority elections. This may be a factor that influences people in deciding whether to vote. Rallings, Temple and Thrasher point to a correlation of close competition between political parties and better electoral turnout. They note that "recent research has indicated that other things being equal, turnout for PR systems is some 7 per cent higher than for FPTP".

3. The local government finance regime

The fact that local authorities levy part of their finance through local taxes is a key reason for the need for strong local accountability. In the UK the proportion of local government finance raised locally is very low. In particular, it is low compared with most other member states in the European Union. The UK (14 per cent) is well below France (54 per cent) and Germany (20 per cent) in terms of the percentage of local government revenue levied from local taxation.

Local government powers

Low turnout in Great Britain may also reflect the powers available to local authorities. Direct correlation between powers and turnout across Europe is very difficult to demonstrate in view of the complexity of local government structures in different countries, and also because the structure is not uniform within many member states. Setting aside the three countries where there is an element of compulsory voting (Luxembourg, Italy and Belgium), the next three in the league table of local election turnout (Denmark, Austria and Germany) have strong local government powers. Denmark is a highly decentralised state—for instance health (including hospitals), regional economic development and road infrastructure lie at "county" level. In Germany, municipalities operate within a principle of the right to autonomous administration of local affairs under local responsibility. In Austria the Federal constitution gives municipalities a general power to deal with all local affairs.

It would be wrong to oversimplify this point. In the Netherlands, while there is a low turnout in local elections, it is nevertheless the case that municipalities and provinces have a power to act in any sphere not expressly reserved for other public authorities. However, it is likely that British turnout is partly a reflection of the very precisely defined and limited powers of local authorities.

Member State Sub-national election turnout % %National election votes as % registered (year) European election turnout


Revenue spend (taxes

variable locally) %


Voting arrangements *denotes compulsory voting in at least some areas

Luxembourg 93 88.3 (1994) 88.5 32 (1994) *
PR in large municipalities
Sweden 90 88.1 (1994) 60 (1994) PR in municipal and county elections
Italy 85 82.9 (1996) 74.8 25 (1995) *

 Full PR in regional elections: partial
PR in local authority elections

Belgium 80 91.1 (1995) 90.7 35 (1995) *

 PR in provincial and municipal elections

Denmark 80 84.3 (1994) 52.9 49 (1995) PR in municipal and county elections
Austria 75 86 (1995) 7 (1994) PR in federal state elections
Germany 72 79.0(1994) 60.0 20 (1995) PR in federal state and municipal elections


France 68 68.0 (1997) 52.7 54 (1995) PR in regional elections. Majority system for other tiers
Spain 64 77.4 (1996) 59.1 34 (1995) PR in autonomous community elections, not in provincial or municipal elections


Finland 63 68.6 (1995) 43 (1995) PR in municipal elections
Ireland 62 65.9 (1997) 44.0 16 (1994) PR in local authority elections
Portugal 60 66.3 (1995) 35.5 7 (1994) PR in municipal elections
Netherlands 54 78.7 (1994) 36.0 8 (1994) PR in provincial and municipal elections


Great Britain/UK 40 (GB) 71.5 (1997) (UK)


36.4 (UK) 14 (UK)


Greece No figures 76.3 (1996) 71.2 Partially proportional list system in municipal and departmental elections

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