See the election disappear

Election views - Liverpool

If you fancy a break from politics this month, come to sunny Liverpool and see the election campaign disappear. In this unspoilt oasis, there are no shopping centre walkabouts, no choreographed poster unveilings, no whirring battle helicopters, no doorstepping party activists. A big crowd braved the cold and snow in Liverpool city centre on Friday morning, but it was to watch the Pope's funeral on a giant TV screen rather than attend a political rally. Callers to the local radio phone-ins here seem more concerned about Charles and Camilla. I have so far received no election leaflets through my door (compare this with the marginal Wirral West, where a friend of mine saw the sitting Labour MP delivering his own leaflets). National politics has intruded only once, with the shocking revelation that the "cheapskate" Tory leader gets into Liverpool home games for nothing.

But Michael Howard's Anfield freebies are unlikely to have any electoral impact in Liverpool, with its rock-solid Labour majorities and low turnouts. My own constituency, Liverpool Riverside, had the lowest turnout in the country in 2001 - indeed, the lowest in any general election since universal suffrage: 34.1 per cent. Since then, the powers that be have tried everything to shake us out of our apathy: postal ballots, consciousness-raising lessons in schools, even experiments in voting by text message in council elections - but to no avail.

According to the standard Almanac of British Politics, the true victor in the seat in 2001 was "the near-despair of non-participation in the democratic process itself", the loss of faith "in a future which seems to hold so little for so many". Given that Riverside includes the deprived northern wards Everton and Vauxhall, as well as Toxteth, scene of the 1981 riots, its low turnout did seem to refute Jack Straw's claim at the last election that voter apathy was the "politics of contentment".

But Riverside is a long, thin constituency that runs along the Mersey from northwest to south-east Liverpool, and it also includes the regenerating city centre and the middle-class area of Aigburth. It has one of the highest proportions of one-person households in the country, just behind Kensington and Chelsea. That means lots of new "luxury" riverside flats, Urban Splash warehouse conversions and privately run student villages. As happened to other big northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds a decade ago, every available empty space near the centre, from derelict docks to the smallest piece of infill, is being swallowed up by developers eager for prime real estate. Some of these new developments are like American-style gated communities, with CCTV cameras, high railings and secure parking - and no election posters in sight.

By its nature, apathy is a hard thing to pin down. Are non-voters angry, distrustful, contentedly apolitical, or just too busy to get to the polling station? In Liverpool Riverside, one of the safest Labour seats in the country, a single vote counts for nothing. So, if it means anything, voting is more of a reluctantly executed duty, a ritual of democratic participation.

In his book Bowling Alone, the American social scientist Robert Putnam suggests that falling electoral turnouts are part of a much more general decline in "social capital" - the value of communal solidarity and associational life - which has occurred over the past few decades. Low turnout in Liverpool Riverside may have as much to do with this nebulous sense of social disconnection as it does with urban deprivation. Like other regenerated cities, Liverpool finds that its centre is acquiring a semi-itinerant population of young, single, childless professionals - working long hours, often out of town, and largely separate from inner-city problems.

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