During the past five years, proportionally fewer young people (aged 18-25) have cast their ballots in elections and referenda. The EU referendum yielded a 35% turnout of those under the age of 25. These were incidentally the people most likely to vote Remain; 60% of this age bracket supported Britain's continued membership of the European Union. Thus, despite the outcries on social media, which have focused on how the elderly have decided our future, young people have at least been partially blamed for the result. Ironically, however, calling young people 'apathetic' is an inherently lazy explanation for low youth turnout.
It is a myth to suggest that young people are not interested or do not care about politics. Indeed, in 2012, over 20% of teachers said that teenagers were more interested in party politics than previous generations. This was particularly evidenced by the Scottish independence referendum. Young people were galvanised by the debate, and almost 70% turned out to vote. It perhaps should be suggested that young people are engaged by current affairs, but their interest in politics is betrayed by the generally declining quality of political campaigns, and our unbalanced democracy.
As a result, a certain way to increase youth turnout would be to reform our electoral system. Currently, and arguably validly, young people feel that voting bares little impact on the outcome of an election. Our First-Past-The-Post voting system is designed to enable a government to gain a clear majority in Parliament and to enact legislation more effectively. However, it also means that millions of votes are 'wasted' in the aggregating process. Though UKIP received 12.6% of the vote at the 2015 general election, the party only won one seat in the House of Commons. Indeed, at last year's election, 74.4% of votes were classed as wasted.
Making our voting system more proportional would undoubtedly encourage more young people to vote. They will feel as though their views are being represented in Parliament, and that they have an equal ability to choose our leaders. The evidence is already there in other counties. For example, elections in Germany operate using a proportional system, which contributed to a turnout of 71% at the last general election, compared to 66% in 2015 UK general election.
Following on from this theme, the standard of politics needs to be elevated from the ‘Punch and Judy’ theatre that we witness on a daily basis. Rather than dealing in policy specifics, politics has been reduced to political point-scoring and hollow soundbites. Despite innumerable debates and interviews pertaining to the EU referendum, the most googled question the day after the referendum was “What is the EU?” . Both campaigns needed to do more to educate people about the EU, rather than peddling fear and uncertainty.
The last way we can get young people to vote is to empower 16 and 17 year olds. By giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote, we would send out a message that we want young people to be strong actors in our democracy. Indeed, youth turnout has increased after the Scottish independence referendum – demonstrating the benefits of widening access to younger voters. This, in turn, would ultimately encourage parties to develop policies to benefit young people, thus further incentivising this demographic to vote.
Overall, although young people are not completely blameless for not casting their ballots, more should be done within the political process to ensure that they are incentivised to vote. After all, it is imperative that young people vote. As the EU referendum showed, at every election we are deciding their futures.