Youth turnout in UK general elections has declined significantly in recent decades. Over 60% of 18 to 24 year olds voted in the 1992 election compared to an average of around 40% since 2002. Youth turnout in the UK is amongst the lowest in Western Europe. For example, around double the proportion of young Swedes vote in national elections (see below). The problem is particularly pronounced amongst young people of low socio-economic status. Only a quarter of those who leave school with no qualifications vote, compared to three quarters of university students.
There is also the additional issue of voter registration. With the introduction of Individual Voter Registration in 2014, over a million citizens (disproportionately young people) fell off the electoral roll. Despite the valiant efforts of a number of organisations – such as Bite the Ballot – to promote registration and bring young people to the polls, the decline in youth turnout has not been reversed.
However, there is overwhelming evidence to show that young people are interested in ‘politics’ (more broadly defined) and engage in a whole multitude of civic and political activities: from demonstrations against university tuition fees, to the boycotting of products that damage the environment, to campaigns against the closing of parks or youth clubs in local communities. So, young people are often interested in, and engaged in, key issues, but are put off by politicians and political parties.
This was demonstrated by the 2016 referendum on British membership of the European Union, when 60% of 18 to 24 year olds turned out to vote on this issue of concern. But most young people were disappointed by the result. Around three quarters of this age group (and 82% of university students) voted for the UK to remain in the EU.
It is, furthermore, clear that the gap between youth attitudes and those of older voters has grown: from the Iraq War, to student tuition fees, to immigration, to Brexit. Indeed, the Labour Party under Ed Miliband managed to significantly increase its share of the vote amongst 18 to 24 year olds in 2015, while losing ground amongst older voters. The Green Party also performed much better (and UKIP much worse) amongst younger voters.
This trend looks set to continue in 2017. According to a recent YouGov poll, almost half of 18 to 24 year olds (and 41% of 25 to 49 year olds) intend to vote Labour, compared to 31% nationally (and only 14% of over 65s!). Only 22% of 18 to 24 year olds support the Conservative Party, compared to 66% of over 65s.
The EU referendum – alongside opposition to the rise of nationalist populism in the United States (with the election of Donald Trump), France and elsewhere – may have had a politicizing effect on young people. Currently, 56% of 18 to 24 year olds claim that they are certain to vote, compared to just 46% at a similar point before the 2015 general election. So, there are some signs of optimism.
Yet the plea to politicians and political parties of all colours must be that they address younger voters’ concerns and pitch policies to this demographic through their manifestos and engagement activities.
In 2015, I undertook a content analysis of party manifestos, which revealed that youth issues were rarely addressed. The Green Party and Labour made the most effort to appeal to younger voters. They were closely followed by the Conservative Party. The Lib Dems and UKIP languished far behind. Unsurprisingly, most parties focus their attention on the growing army of older voters (who also are more likely to turn out in elections).
In recent years, many politicians have professed their commitment to strengthening youth engagement in British democracy. In this context, it will be interesting to see whether, in 2017, political parties will broaden their appeals to reach a younger audience.
James Sloam is Reader in Politics and International Relations, Co-Director of the Centre for European Politics, and a member of the New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London.