We now know that there was no ‘youthquake’ in the 2017 election that led to the loss of the Conservative majority. Turnout was slightly higher than the previous election (by 2.5 percent). While we cannot be too accurate in our estimations, it appears that turnout for voters between 18-24-year olds held at anywhere between mid to the high 40s as a percentage.
Why is this a problem? This is not a uniquely British problem, turnout amongst the 18-24 age group is lower than all other age groups across Europe. It appears that it does not matter very greatly whether the electoral system is First Past the Post or a proportional one. There is an increase in turnout if the system is proportional but it is not as significant as one might think in convincing younger voters to turnout at election time.
Why does it happen? It is easy to lay the blame of young voters not voting due to laziness and apathy, which I feel is an insult to this age bracket. Having spoken to many young people and pollsters about their reasons why the young do not vote I feel it can boil down to three (over simplified) reasons.
Firstly, there is a barrier to entry. The government has always required people to register to vote, the methods of this may have changed (from household registering to individual registering) but it still requires conscious effort on the part of the electorate to register to vote. By the age of 27, 90% of people will have moved out of their parents’ house, subsequently just under 50% will have moved back in with their parents. This level of ‘churn’ and displacement results in the shifting of ones’ details. It is estimated that over the first ten years of leaving their parents’ home a person will go through four significant relocations. On the list of having to switch over details to the new residence registering to vote falls far down the list, especially if there is no consequence to them not doing so.
Secondly, it is not apathy but rather disengagement that contributes to a low turnout. By disengagement I do not mean with politics, activism among younger voters is far higher than any other group, but rather with the political parties. The sheer amount of jargon that someone has to get through to understand the issues cannot be understated. I do not say this to be insulting to the electorate but any barrier to voting is one that needs to be removed. Who do you vote for in the British electoral system? The MP of your constituency of course, but in the age of the new leadership campaign style it makes people think that they are voting for the leader of the party. Who do they want to be Prime Minister? A person’s vote must suddenly become two things instead of merely voting for their local MP.
Finally, it is responsibility that contributes to reasons for low turnout amongst younger voters. If, as mentioned earlier, young people move as much as they do this means that the majority are renting for extended periods of time with the knowledge that they will be moving further along in their life. If this is the case, why does it matter to someone (particularly in local elections) who represents them if in two years they will not be there? If the big political parties are spending their time talking about housing why does that matter to you if you will not be owning a house anytime soon? What of improving school standards if you have just left school? It is telling that political leaders so very rarely discuss the issues that impact the 18-24-year age bracket – they know those concerned are not listening.
What can be done? The Labour party has made some headway in creating policies that are appealing to young voters with free tuition fees and a recently announced plan to give free bus passes to the under 25-year olds. This was rewarded at the last election where university towns had a good upswing in votes for Labour (Canterbury is one example where a student population helped to succeed in overturning a 9000-odd Conservative majority) and resulted in those seats turning red. This demonstrates that creating policies that target this age bracket has a positive result. It was a risk for Labour to do this as conventional wisdom claimed students would not turnout the way they did. Theresa May stated that she was unaware that housing was such a big issue for people in their twenties, subsequently stamp duty fees have been abolished for first time buyers. Hopefully moving forward, the parties now recognise there are votes to be had in this demographic and creating policies for them results in higher turnout.
Additionally, there is the problem of education. It is clear through speaking to voters that educating them, giving them the tools to make informed decisions during election time, is definitely an area that should be explored. Enshrining compulsory citizenship and politics education in schools would go a long way to creating more astute voters. It cannot be simply expected that people will vote because a hundred years ago voting was a privilege of the minority- the argument is valid but holds little sway with today’s young voters. Imagine instead an 18-year-old being excited about voting because they were aware of the differences between district and county elections or were opposed to the local plan and so were interested in voting against it. Imagine instead of simply seeing Prime Minister’s Questions at face value (two groups of people shouting at each other, asking questions neither will answer and trading insults), young voters understood the purpose of rigorous debate and why ping-ponging sometimes matters.
Now that the dust has settled on the EU Referendum it has been revealed that 64% of young voters turned out to vote. I discussed earlier the myriad of issues and policies that parties have that require a high level of knowledge and understanding to interpret. Perhaps if elections were more like referendums, in which simple questions were presented to the voters following several months of debate, higher turnouts amongst the young would become the norm.