Referendum is a golden opportunity for political parties to woo young voters

Teenagers preparing to take the plunge at North Berwick. Neil Roger, CC BY-SA

Young people are accused of many things: being individualistic, hedonistic and spending most of their time in front of computers. They are frequently said to be disengaged from things that matter and most notably apathetic about politics. Voting turnout is certainly low among young voters, so there appears to be evidence to support this thesis. Reducing the voting age to 16 might seem to be a rather bad idea.

But focusing only on presumptions and one or two statistics on voting behaviour does not do justice to the youngest voters. In relation to the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future, I was involved in conducting a survey of more than 1,000 14-17 year olds in April and May 2013. This age range was chosen because the voting age for the referendum has been lowered to 16, but hardly any research had been conducted on those who would be enfranchised to vote in September 2014 for the first time.

The research revealed that young people were very sceptical about independence, as was well covered in the press at the time, but the most insightful findings reached far beyond the topic of the referendum. They help us to understand a little better how young people’s views on political issues form and why we should not equate disengagement with political apathy.

Young political guns

We found no evidence that young people are significantly less interested in politics than adults. Only 9% of 14-17 year olds reported that they had no interest in politics compared to 13% of all adults asked in the 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. At the other end of the spectrum, 12% of the youngest voters and 10% of those 18 and above said they had a great deal of interest in politics. The splits over the viewpoints in between were also similar for the two age groups.

This political interest also looks likely to translate into actual voting. Asked whether they would vote in the referendum, only 13% of the 14-17 year olds said they were very or rather unlikely to take part. Around two-thirds expressed the opposite, suggesting a high turnout among young voters. Albeit slightly lower than in the adult survey results, it is clear that the prospect of referendum turnout surpassing that of any parliamentary or council election also extends to the youngest voters.

Parent puppets?

Many critical commentators have suggested that these young voters may simply follow the lead of their parents and not make up their own minds. Our data does not support that view. When we asked the young voters the referendum question (allowing them to say “yes”, “no” or “undecided”) only 56% gave the same answer as one of their parents had given at an earlier point in the interview.

Research shows that parents don’t pass on their political habits as much as they used to. England Foundation, CC BY-SA

We know from a lot of research studies that what we previously knew as transmission of political party alignment from one generation to another has been weakening over past decades. It may have been plausible to expect greater overlap between parent and youth voting intentions previously, but the results now suggest that many young people hold different views to their parents. Two-thirds of young people also said they would like to have more information before deciding – suggesting they were open to information influencing their voting behaviour rather than merely following a lead.

Late to the party

Having said all this, there is something distinct about the youngest voters: they distance themselves from the traditional actors of mainstream politics, namely political parties. Nearly six out of ten 14-17 year olds say they do not feel close to any political party (and the numbers could be expected to be even higher if we had asked about whether they supported a political party). While this detachment from political parties has also been observed across the age groups, it is much more strongly pronounced among the youngest voters.

It might be that the political parties are not particularly interested in targeting these young voters because they will only make up 3% of the electorate. But obviously that is short-sighted. When young people think an issue matters, they are not only likely to be interested but also to engage and vote. If the parties do not harness this momentum, this group will seek alternative ways of participating in politics such as NGOs, interest groups, demonstrations and petitions – a trend which is well established already. The parties need to take these young voters seriously rather than making assumptions about them. Opportunities like this do not come up very often.