Hard Evidence: will young people vote, and does it even matter?

Youth votes could make a big difference, if they make it to the box. Julien Behal/PA

As the final stages of the 2015 general election campaign unfold, it looks like we could end up with a multi-party coalition of at least three – and possibly more – parties. This would be unprecedented in the modern era of British politics.

But a shadow falls over the election in the form of voter abstention by the British public. Declining electoral participation rates have been a feature of recent general elections, with people voting in far fewer numbers than in previous decades. In Britain, nowhere is the divide between citizens and mainstream democratic politics and the state more apparent than among today’s young people.

A major concern of national politicians is that young people seem increasingly reluctant to vote in elections. Only 44% of registered 18 to 24-year-olds participated at the general election in 2010, remaining well below youth election turnout rates recorded during the 1980s and 1990s, and significantly less than their older contemporaries.

The recent Audit of Political Engagement suggests that young people’s turnout at the election on May 7 this year may be even lower than it was at previous contests. Only 16% of those aged 18 to 24 are certain to vote, while 30% claim that they are certain to abstain.

Facing the consequences

But what does it matter if young people decide to turn their backs on the general election this year? The issue is that if young people don’t participate, then their policy concerns are given relatively little priority by the political classes. When elected to office, politicians in government will tend to pursue policies that favour older people, and other groups which are more inclined to vote, at the expense of younger people, and other groups which are less inclined to vote.

This can seriously contribute to the deepening of existing generational social and economic inequalities. A recent report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, highlighted the impact of the UK government’s 2010 spending review on different social groups. It concluded that the impact of cuts in services and benefits for young people was disproportionately higher than for other age groups – and significantly so.

The generational difference in electoral participation rates has been important in recent years, because it has led to uneven patterns in government policy-prioritisation, and consequently to uneven patterns of austerity-impact. The perceptions held by young people are that they have been marginalised by the political class, and fallen victim to austerity politics. As these perceptions harden, the likelihood is that they will withdraw further from the electoral process and from democratic politics.

And so a vicious circle is set in motion: politicians prioritise the policy-demands of those most likely to vote (older and middle class citizens) at the expense of those less likely to do so (the young). So young people feel there’s less value in voting, and are therefore most likely to abstain from voting. The response of politicians is therefore to target their efforts, resources and policies at those most likely to vote, leaving young people’s concerns eclipsed once again.

Are young people apathetic?

We conducted an online questionnaire survey with 1,025 young people aged 18 (in 2010), as well as a series of 14 online focus groups with young people who had opted not to vote at the last poll. The results suggest that – contrary to popular thinking – young people are not politically apathetic.

Young people are concerned about education, jobs, and the economy. Matt Henn, Author provided

Instead, as the graph above indicates, young people have a very clear youth-oriented agenda, expressing anxiety about their immediate educational and employment prospects. They also prioritised a range of other issues, including race relations and immigration, the way that the country is governed, government spending, taxation, health care, as well as defence, foreign affairs and terrorism.

Although young people are interested in political issues, they find the world of formal Westminster politics to be far removed from their own everyday lives. They consider it to be overly complex and populated by a professional political elite, who are more concerned with pursuing their own narrow self-serving agenda than in championing the interests and concerns of young people. As the graph below reveals, young people also feel relatively powerless, with few opportunities to access and influence the decision-making process.

Young people: feeling disempowered. Matt Henn, Author provided

Will young people vote?

While this generation appears to be relatively fatalistic with respect to the scope and prospects for achieving meaningful political change, they are broadly supportive of democratic ideals and processes. Results from our research suggest that 57% of young people in Britain are committed to the principle of voting, with a sizeable group of 48% expressing support for competitive elections.

Recent experiences also suggest that young people are not innately averse to voting on matters that are of critical importance to them. It is estimated that 80% of 16 and 17-year-olds cast a ballot at the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, leading the Scottish First Minister to conclude that “their engagement in this debate was second to none. They proved themselves to be the serious, passionate, committed citizens we always believed they would be.”

And does it matter?

Young voting-age adults form a powerful latent voting block, and could be a decisive force for change. Recent reports published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Intergenerational Foundation estimate that anywhere between 11 and 41 constituencies might change hands if more young people could be persuaded to vote.

Given that we are witnessing one of the most fiercely contested and unpredictable elections for decades, all votes will have an extremely high premium. Politicians would therefore be wise to take more notice of young people and their concerns. They ignore them at their peril.

This project was conducted with Nick Foard at Nottingham Trent University. Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.