Over the last two decades there has been a frightening drop in the democratic turnout of young people. Is there any way of reversing this trend?
By Tommy Churchyard
The 2015 general election saw one of the worst turnouts on record for young adults, with just 43% of registered 18-24 year olds choosing to cast their vote, according to Ipsos MORI. That is a dangerously low figure.
Political disengagement of Britain’s youth isn’t a new development; it has been a constant trend for the last 20 years. This time period has shown that there is a worrying disconnection between the political system and the current crop of young adults in the UK, who are increasingly disillusioned with modern day politics.
It would be easy to label these non-voters as apathetic, with a lack of interest in current affairs, but this is questionable. Many young people are politically active when it comes to issues that concern them, but use other forms of democratic participation to express their views. This is frequently shown through protests and online forums, such as petitions.
As Conor Burns, MP for Bournemouth West, explains, the parties don’t appeal to young people as voters: “While young people are very engaged about issues (housing, environment, cost of education, the economy etc), they sometimes don’t see party politics providing answers to these concerns.”
We are currently in a vicious circle whereby young people will not vote because politicians don’t listen to their concerns; therefore politicians target their manifestos at older generations who are more likely to vote for them. So how can this vicious circle be broken?
There are many reforms that can be made which could potentially encourage more young people to take part in the democratic process, such as: automatic registration; electoral reform; modernising electoral administration (weekend voting, online voting etc.), and lowering the voting age.
The Electoral Reform Society, an independent organisation campaigning for a democracy that better reflects the 21st century, covers many of these issues, with their main focus being reform of the First Past the Post electoral system. Josiah Mortimer, Spokesperson for the Electoral Reform Society, said:
“First Past the Post is completely broken and the last general election was the most disproportionate in British history. People are voting for a wide range of parties in the 21st century and this isn’t translating into political representation. People feel disillusioned, disengaged and people are just switching off from politics.”
Josiah understands the importance of getting young people to vote, especially during a time when turnout is so low. He said: “Young people are absolutely the ones who are most affected by the decisions that people make at the ballot box and one of the things that we’d like to see is votes for 16-17 year olds, I think that would really revitalise our politics in the UK. We’d also like to see things like making it much more easy for people to actually vote, being able to register on the day, being able to vote at any polling station and weekend voting.
Bite the Ballot is another organisation that focuses on reform of the electoral system, with the specific aim of getting more young people to cast their vote in UK elections. Their Campaigns Manager, Abiodum Olatokun, believes reform is necessary to convert general political activity into votes at the ballot box.
He explains: “Political involvement in modern times is taking less traditional forms. People are writing petitions, engaging in debate online and taking direct action in protests. It has been the most traditional form of democratic participation, voting, which has been in definite decline. Whereas, you could argue that other forms of political participation have actually increased in the 21st century.”
Abiodum adds that many young people feel excluded from politics, because political representatives don’t take there interests into account: “The tone in which politics is spoken about puts young people off voting as well as the decisions that politicians make. We don’t see politicians taking the interests of young people into consideration.
“Politics just needs to be made more relevant and accessible for people. We need to be able to see, as young people, how party policies and the voting system make tangible, direct benefit to our lives.”
But it is all well and good identifying what is wrong with the democratic process, it’s another thing actually doing something about it. Real reform is needed in order to encourage more young people to vote, which only the Government can implement.
Immad Bajwa is the Communications and Policy Coordinator for the Government’s Democratic Engagement Programme and he explained, on behalf of the Cabinet, what they are doing to improve voter turnout: “The Government is committed to maximising electoral registration to help support the highest possible turnout in elections. This includes young people, who care deeply about many issues but don’t always express their views at the ballot box. We know that for a democracy to be vibrant and inclusive it need a youth voice.”
Immad was clear in stating that something needs to be done, but offered no proposed electoral reform. He did, however, say that the Government have introduced the Discovering Democracy Award, adding: “This award was designed to exemplar schools which prepare their students to be full and active participants in democratic life from a young age, including the importance of registering to vote.”
But whilst the Government are doing something, it is only a mere drop in the ocean, and doesn’t include any reform. The problem is, the electoral system that we use in the UK greatly benefits the two major parties, Labour and Conservative. This is exemplified by the amount of votes per seat at the 2015 General Election. Whilst UKIP got nearly four million votes for their one seat, and the Green Party got over one million votes for their only seat, Conservatives received a seat for every 34,244 votes they got and Labour obtained 40,290 votes per seat.
So whilst The Government will offer awards to try and get more people to vote, they wont actually make any real reforms to the electoral process, because they are the real winners from our failed system. This results in yet another vicious circle. Unless proper reform is made, the current generation of young adults could go through the majority of their adult life without engaging in the democratic process.