A recent poll of voting intention by YouGov produced some interesting figures, and raised questions about the importance of young voters in Britain’s electoral system.
The headline figure was provided by UKIP, who polled a dismal 0% of 18-24yr olds in the survey published on Sunday. Yes, only 74 young people were polled in this instance, but the political literati predictably spun the story to read that Britain’s fourth largest party could not count on a single voter under 25.
While the new poll is undoubtedly a public relations disaster for UKIP, voter demographics show that the political impact may be far less severe. In the 2005 election, voter turnout for 18-24yr olds was 37%, way below the national average of 61%, and The Guardian reported that 22% of students were not even registered to vote in the weeks leading up to the 2010 contest. An investigation by the centre-left think-tank IPPR revealed that two over-65s voted for every young person who bothered to cast their ballot.
A lot of noise is made about engaging young people in politics, boosting the turnout of the under 25s, and encouraging parties to better represent the ‘next generation.’ Unfortunately, many initiatives turn out to be only so much hot air. The youth wings of the major parties are seen by outsiders as being dominated by small, well-connected cliques and those who aspire to be ‘career politicians.’ This image does little to endear politics to young people not traditionally interested in politics.
Witness Labour’s own recent NPF elections. In the race for Youth Representative, only 3 regions out of 11 fielded more than one candidate to contest the position. Hardly the image of a thriving youth movement.
The best way to encourage youth engagement in mainstream politics is not to segregate those under-25 to a ‘party within a party’- like Young Labour or Liberal Youth. Children and teenagers interested in politics need to be better integrated with the senior parties in order to feel part of the movement as a whole.
Why doesn’t this happen already? The answer is twofold:
Firstly, young, politically-motivated individuals are usually more radical than their older peers within the party. Giving them a louder voice within the party movement means a louder debate on the ideological direction of the group as a whole. Good for internal party democracy, perhaps, but bad for the party image. The public dislikes the spectacle of factionalism and disunity within a party.
Secondly, it’s an unfortunate truth that the youth vote just isn’t important enough for parties to justify funnelling more resources into improving engagement. A report for Age Concern revealed that 18-24yr olds accounted for only 7.1% of the total turnout at the 2005 General Election. Compare this to the massive 42.6% share of the turnout recorded by the over 55s. No wonder politicians fret so much about wooing grey voters.
So there is a vicious circle preventing young people from engaging in mainstream politics. Parties need to do more to entice under-25s to take part, but will not do so unless the proportion of the votes cast by them is critical to electoral success. But young people will not vote in larger numbers unless they are engaged by parties in the first place.
It will take a real change in attitudes to break this circle once and for all.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog