The question of youth participation in the UK’s general elections is an important one. Over several decades, we have witnessed a decline in youth engagement with electoral politics. According to Ipsos MORI figures, turnout among young people (here, 18 to 24-year-olds) has fallen from over 60% in the early 1990s, to an average of 40% over the previous three general elections (in 2001, 2005 and 2010).
But youth turnout was yet another surprise on a night that was full of surprises. British Election Study data suggests that the turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds increased significantly from the 2010 poll – from 52% to 58%. A number of factors may have contributed to this bounce back: the closeness of the election, voter registration drives by organisations such as BitetheBallot, and possibly the Green and Labour parties’ focus on youth issues.
Contrary to their somewhat shaky electoral turnout record, research shows that young people are politically active. They engage in alternative forms of participation, on issues that have meaning for their everyday lives: from rallies against the Iraq War and increases in student tuition fees, to the organisation (though social media) of the citizen clean-up operation after the London riots, to consumer campaigns against tax avoidance by large companies and community activism to save local parks and youth centres.
Nevertheless, the disconnection between young people and electoral politics is dangerous. If young people do not vote, politicians will not take their issues seriously, generating further disillusionment and fuelling the vicious circle.
Making a connection
In the lead-up to May 7, political parties tried to connect with young people to various extents, and with varying results. A simple content analysis of the party manifestos, searching for the term “young people”, ranked the parties in the following order: Greens, 35; Labour, 30; Conservatives, 21; Liberal Democrats, 11 (adjusted downwards due to the length of the manifesto); SNP, 9 (4 for “young people”, 5 for “young Scots”); and UKIP, 5.
The Greens provided a number of key pledges, including free higher education, free local transport, and votes at age 16. Labour promised to get rid of most unpaid apprenticeships, abolish zero-hour contracts, deliver votes at 16, and reduce university tuition fees to £6,000 (the latter pledge was included in the party’s bespoke “youth manifesto”). And remember the MiliBrand interview?
According to Lord Ashcroft Polling on May 7, youth support for individual parties was as follows:
Labour increased its share of the vote amongst 18 to 24-year-olds by ten percentage points, the Conservative share fell by six points, and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given their U-turn on university tuition fees – the Liberal Democrats’ youth vote collapsed (down 22 points) from the 2010 general election. The Green Party scored 10% among 18 to 24-year-olds, which was higher than the combined score for all “other parties” (Greens, UKIP, BNP, SNP, Plaid and more) in 2010.
Political parties target certain segments of the population to win votes, but age is a unique phenomenon. Research tells us that the voting habits of young voters will persist as they get older (so the increased turnout rate is encouraging), and there is a better than good chance that party attachments will also remain.
In 2015, the huge decline in young people’s support for the Liberal Democrats assisted in the collapse of the party in several key constituencies. On the other hand, the demographic weight of 18 to 24-year-olds has declined and voting rates are still significantly lower than the national average (for all ages). Here, the debate about “votes at 16” is important.
As it stands, the boost in young Labour supporters seemed to have little impact upon the final result. But any party that can build support in successive generations of younger voters would ultimately profit from such a approach. This should give food for thought – bringing out the youth vote should be a key long-term strategy for all political parties.