When Labour leader Ed Miliband visited Russell Brand recently, they talked a bit about why young people abstain from voting. In a way, Miliband’s chat with Brand is a snapshot of how Britain has talked about young politics since the 1980s: a politician and a public commentator trying to figure out where the young votes went.
Miliband is right to put young voters on his list of priorities. However, no matter how you feel about abstention as an electoral tactic, commentators who hail a revolution around the corner miss the point. Young people haven’t quit the political system. It is the political system that has failed to give them something to vote for.
Rather than consulting celebrities, political parties would be best advised to put their money where their mouth is: if you want young votes, this is what you have to do.
The 2015 election is a critical one for young people. This generation is facing the worst economic prospects of any since World War II. Yet, we still see an enduring rift between young citizens and the political institutions built to serve them. Abstention is a widely discussed symptom of this rift. And while some like to blame apathy, the truth is, young people feel marginalised from the institutions that run British politics.
Though voter turnout fell in all age groups between 1986 and 1999, a generational gap in electoral participation grew. Something changed in the relationship between institutional politics and the children who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2010, 34% of the UK population abstained from voting, but the proportion was much higher among young people. If abstention was a party, 2010 would have been a landslide victory among the young.
The results for those young people who did vote gave the three main parties remarkably close results – with the Liberal Democrats boosted to a great extent by their pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees.
The UK is different
Young people don’t vote, but in the UK, the rupture between young people and institutional politics runs deeper than empty ballot boxes.
In fact, the UK has the largest generational gap of our European neighbours across all traditional modes of institutional participation, from protest to petitions. While their fellows in France balance electoral abstention with participation in other traditional ways of doing politics – such as protests or boycotts – young people in the UK are far less involved in any of these.
Young people are interested in politics and believe in elections – but they don’t trust politicians or political parties.
Go into any pub or park you like and ask the first person of any age what they think about politicians, and you are likely to get a negative response. Politics is the least trusted profession in the UK. So there is little to surprise us in on the right side of the chart below, which depicts a selection of the responses to a study of young people’s perceptions of politics in 2011, following the last General Election.
But on the left hand side of the chart you will see data that is not often discussed. Young people in the UK tend to profess to researchers that they do have an interest in politics and that they trust elections as an effective way to go about running a country.
Despite Russell Brand’s assertion that politics itself is a broken system, young people don’t necessarily agree, even if they don’t vote. They seem to want elections as a democratic principle but distrust the current stock of politicians as custodians of that principle.
Preaching to the converted?
This lack of trust in politicians may go some way towards explaining why the hard work and imaginative adverts of the many campaigns for young turnout, which have characterised elections since the 1990s have not made a significant dent in young abstention.
Perhaps young people are already sold on democracy in principle, no matter which celebrity asks them to rock up to the polling station. Maybe they’re waiting for something everyone else wants – something to vote for.
It may not be a coincidence that the last major vote in the UK, the Scottish Independence Referendum, attracted so many young voters. It offered a clear and distinct choice more or less separate from political parties. Yes is Yes and No is No, no matter what colour tie it wears.
Unsurprisingly, the issues that matter most to young people reflect the risky nature of young lives following the global economic crisis.
They are concerned about affording a place to live, finding a job, and having reliable safety nets like the NHS and mental health provision there for when things go wrong.
Where do we go from here?
One way to put young people at the centre of politics is to represent them, directly, in political institutions. We may be too late to catch the 2015 election, but by 2020, the UK’s political parties would do well to revise their approach to young people as members.
Historically, political parties have considered young people as a case apart. They are kept in youth wings, segregated from the main party, from decision making processes and campaigning.
If they were to welcome young people and make them part of decisions, they might be able to repair the relationship between young people and political institutions after years of scandal, distrust and division.
They could start by giving them a more representative set of politicians to vote for. The fact that a greater proportion of young women than young men abstained from voting in 2010 might, for instance, tell us that the lack of representation of women in parliament is a factor.
Political parties need to act now to better understand the relationship between young diversities, and their representation in parliament. They need to understand that young people can be voters, but also abstainers, protesters, organisers, union members and ethical buyers, and that all these are ways of doing politics in the 21st century.
Most of all, what young voters want is a place at the main table of politics. They don’t want to rock the vote for the vote’s sake. If we are to rebuild the broken relationship between politics and young constituents, we need to start by putting young people at the centre of politics. Voting is, after all, a tool for representation in the public decision making process. If we want young people to use it, it needs to be effective.