Young British voters: a crucial vote, if they cast it

Posted on 08. May 2015

by Mathew Shearman

mathew-shearmanIt is the closest election for a generation. Political parties are looking for votes in all parts of the electorate to secure the 326 MPs needed to form a majority Government in the House of Commons. The 3.3 million ‘first-time voters’ would provide a crucial base of support if they can be convinced to vote.

It seems that for many young British voters, the opportunity to shape the politically fragmented parliament is not essential. Only 51.8% of Britons aged 18-24 year olds voted in the 2010 election, an improvement on 2001 and 2005 (40.4% and 38.2% respectively) but still well below the national average (65.0% in 2010). Current forecasts suggest that 68% of young people were certain or at least ‘likely’ to vote, but this will surely ebb away on the day. This comes despite the new political dynamics brought by smaller parties: the Green Party, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish National Party (SNP), who could act as kingmaker for the next Coalition Government.

Historically low turnout has relegated younger voters in the political calculations of all parties. In December, as many as 44% of young people had not decided who to vote for. Consequently, parties traditionally court elder voters, making less effort engaging younger ones. The centre-right Conservative party was accused of an “intergeneneratioal theft” and of bribing elder voters when it used its last Budget to create a pensioner bonds for the over-65s at a substantial cost to the taxpayer. The offers for younger people have been less generous: continued funding apprenticeships would have to be payed with a cut to welfare support for young jobseekers.

In contrast, the centre-left Labour Party, has made steps on adopting positions on perceived ‘youth issues’ with a pledge to guaranteed apprenticeships for people, a younger voting age, and cuts to the costs of tuition fees. This strategy corresponds to the 2014 work by the Demos thinktank suggesting that apprenticeships and reducing the cost of higher education were top youth issue priorities.

Yet the concept of a so-called “youth strategy” is a misleading approach, as these issues do not dominate youth voting calculations. Among a recent poll, only 26% young voters viewed reducing university tuition fees as an important electoral issue. Instead, they aligned with the rest of the electorate in seeing ‘Managing the NHS’, ‘Keeping down the cost of everyday items’ and “controlling immigration’ as the most important reasons to vote for a party.

This would suggest that articulating broad political issues in a convincing and relevant way to their day-to-day lives may have a greater impact than tailoring campaigns in a narrowly “youth friendly” way to drive young people to the ballot box. NGO projects such as Bite the Ballot have already begun a non-partisan campaign to register young voters, demonstrating the importance of policy to young peoples’ lives and convincing them to vote. Compared with the over 65 category however, they still represent an unreliable source of support and as such, the generation as a whole undermines its own political influence.

One key area that they will have influence is in the political fate of the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in the Sheffield Hallam constituency. The area is a wealthy suburb, but also dominated by two universities, with voters drawn from both students and employees. In the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats secured 48% of the national student vote, with its leader obtaining an overall majority of 15,284 votes in the area. However, the Liberal Democrats broke their campaign pledge on not raising tuition fees soon after entering government. This eroded Clegg’s personal credibility and recent polls suggest that the student vote could be reduced to 7% nationally, with Nick Clegg at risk of losing his parliamentary seat.

Electorally less important than assumed, the Europe question is an area of potential leverage for young voters. Looking ahead to a possible referendum on EU membership in 2017, young voters may hold the key to securing Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Polled in December 2014, 67% of first-time-voters suggested they would vote to stay in Europe, with UKIP’s Nigel Farage as their least favourite party leader.

The young electorate is statistically more likely to be liberal and broadly favourable to the European Union. If recent proposals of a younger voting age go ahead, which is rather unlikely, the impact of the younger generation on a referendum would increase. UKIP’s rejection of this proposal made by peddling the myth that children are “brainwashed” by “EU propaganda”, indicates their fear that young votes may push the balance in favour of remaining within the European Union.

Securing youth votes in the next election and any future referendum remains a challenge for the political system. Systemic electoral change and the introduction of voting online may help to lower the barriers. This, in conjunction with the development of more direct methods of campaigning, such as online videos and social media, could deepen the political significance of the youth vote in future elections.

If you believe British comedian and part-time revolutionary Russell Brand,young people should avoid voting in May. This is hardly the answer to political disaffection. A failure to turn up at the ballot in 2015 will give undue influence to both older people and that part of the electorate with traditionally more conservative views. Young people have a responsibility to participate in this election, forcing parties to take account of their vote, and in this way contributing to a more representative Government.

This blog post has been published in German on Süddeutsche Zeitung in the framework of FutureLab Europe and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s cooperation.