Why Don’t Young People Vote?

When Rik Mayall died earlier this year, one of his most iconic works came to my attention. It was The Young Ones: the early 80s sitcom depicting student living. The Young Ones featured, and to some extent perpetuated, those familiar student clichés that have long since become defunct — poor but idealistic students sitting in damp-ridden, squat-like residences, eating beans on toast, angry with society and spending far too much time shouting about it. In 2014, this vision of studentship has been replaced with the cash-rich (even if it is borrowed money) undergrad entrepreneur, juggling internships and negotiating a highly competitive graduate jobs market. However, at the time of The Young Ones’ creation, this vision of politically-engaged students, and youth in general, was certainly not as alien as it is now, with voter turnout at around 75% nationally. Today the statistics are much less, at around 65% nationally with a mere 44% of all 18–25-year-olds* participating. So why did the notion of youth as a hotbed of political activism become an outdated caricature?

Data from the House of Commons Library

The first thing to state is that fewer people voting doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people are politically active. This is especially true of the under-26s who are prone to new, digital methods of political engagement. Previously, at a time when only a privileged few had a right to an audience, the only political expression any individual was categorically guaranteed was through their vote. This is no longer the case, as the internet has provided a range of methods for expressing political dissatisfaction at an individual level — Change.org, 38degrees, Twitter, YouTube – in just a few clicks. Indeed, it’s easier than ever before to be a political person, to learn, discuss and interact with new ideas – and there is room to argue that in fact, the under-25 generation are the most politically engaged they’ve ever been.

It’s easier than ever before to be a political person.

To use a current example, globally we have experienced a growth in engagement with feminist ideology – filling column inches in every paper and featuring as the centrepiece of Beyonce’s live VMA ‘14 performance. Across the world, this new wave was arguably not spearheaded by any of the mainstream political parties or formal unions, but was rather the result of organically grown internet activists and supporters. Here in the UK, many of the leading voices come from the younger generation of bloggers, (Laurie Penny, Laura Bates, Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett) and while there has not been one single ‘vote for feminism’, all of the mainstream parties have attempted to adopt female-centric policies (women-only shortlists, revisiting the pay gap, etc) to curry favour with this growing movement. A vote is not the only means of expressing a belief on how society is governed, nor influencing who is governing it.

Of course, the problem is, until there is major reform of the electoral system, voting is the only means that matters. Political ideas presented as protests, social media campaigns, vlogs or more, all of that work boils down to setting the political parties’ agendas in order for the public to vote on it. So it stands to reason that if the people are not there to vote for it, setting an agenda for them is a strategic waste of time from a party’s point of view. If young people are not there to stand and be counted, then why create policies that work in their favour when you can create policies that favour the regular voters and guarantee you a seat in office? Think of the recent policies that are unique in mainly affecting the under-25s, as opposed to universal issues that have been championed by internet savvy younger people (such as this new wave of feminism). Student fee hikes, a bar on benefits for under 25s – could these policies have been passed if there were more young voters?

It’s a worrying picture. If the 44% of young voters grow up to become 44% of older voters, with the newer voters continuing the trend and participating even less than their predecessors, the system will break down.

This system breakdown has become, for many, a political aim in itself. The face of this, of course, is Russell Brand, who argues that if that the options are not good enough, then not choosing any of them is sending an important message, which will in turn allow new methods to flourish. It’s a salient point, and one that chimes particularly with a younger generation who have consistently been sidelined in recent politics (hello Nick Clegg!) and in many respects are tied up in managing an increasingly troubled future – one laden with debt and without assets.

You can still expect younger people to turn out and be counted if they feel it might actually make a difference.

In our internet age, where hundreds upon hundreds of political issues are circulating at any given moment, reimagined in every context from viral audio (UKIP Calypso), social media charity campaign (#icebucketchallenge #wakeupcall), to online petition, how can one single vote ever come close to expressing a young person’s political wants? Variety, choice, the significance of the individual purchase: these are the pillars of the society we have been born into, a technicolour world far from the black and white times before internet. A two-party system — seriously? This is all we have to choose from? One single vote might have been enough in times gone by, when there was a monoculture (Thatcherism, Communism) to rally for or against – or at least the idea of one — but what happens now that we’ve peeked behind the curtains of politics, and seen the inner machinations of the party system in which each choice is equally condemning of the youth as the other?

But the Brand line of thinking is yet to propose a viable solution, and we all know that nature abhors a vacuum. History has not been kind to societies with a weak political system, normally filling the gap with some kind of extremism, be that economic or ideological. Often the effects are negative and take generations to recover from, and the first shoots of this extremism are beginning to sprout up here in the UK (hello Nigel Farage!).

It’s a bleak picture, but it’s not one without hope. Yes, voter malaise might be a real problem, but political malaise isn’t. You only need to look at our unlikely political spokespeople to see that: from footballers to pop stars, more public figures are speaking out on issues they’d traditionally have shied away from. Often with ignorant and potentially damaging opinions, but opinions nonetheless.

Let’s put this in context. Every single day on Twitter one of the highest trending stories will be something political. Twitter claims there are 15 million active users in the UK – that’s just under a quarter of the entire population of the UK. We can infer from that that just under a quarter of the entire country is exposed to some kind of ‘headline’ political issue each day. Forget about the integrity of that headline, and whether someone from One Direction combing their hair is trending higher – that’s more exposure to a political issue than the height of the newspaper industry ever reached**. To boot, here in the UK we still have one of the most developed newspaper and journal industries in the world. When you also consider that the average Twitter user is under 30, it’s clear that politics is more visible than ever before, and especially so for young people.

Indeed, for the right issue, you can still expect younger people to turn out and be counted if they feel it might actually make a difference. This was most recently demonstrated by the recent Scottish Referendum, in which landslide numbers were counted across all demographics. What we need is both improvements to the current voting system and a drastic shift in culture around voting to reiterate the power of the vote.

Changes have been attempted. There was the 2012 push to install Alternative Voting (AV), in place of our current system, First Past The Post. As a winner takes all game, FPTP insists upon a majority vote to make sure that decisions are made by the majority winner. AV would allow for non-majority but popular candidates to have greater influence, therefore in theory allowing for a more ‘pluralist’ government. Having been poorly represented by each individual party, this approach may have proved popular with a younger generation who could create more choice by selecting several parties on a vote. The campaign to install AV failed miserably over concerns too many voices would stall any policies actually being passed, or that AV wouldn’t actually create pluralism as well as other electoral systems might (such as the Single Transferable Vote system). It’s worth pointing out that voter turnout on AV referendum day was at a bleak 42.2%.

One of the No to AV campaign billboards.

This comes back to the great conundrum of the youth voter apathy issue: what came first, young people disengaging, prompting policy to be created in spite of them, or policy created in spite of them prompting young people to disengage?

There has also been a campaign to ‘mobilize’ the vote — allowing votes to be cast securely via smartphones and mobile devices. It’s thought that this would be particularly popular with the younger voters who are more familiar with this method of political engagement, and allow for greater flexibility for young people who are living away from home or in temporary housing. We cannot forget that traditionally, the poorest sectors of society in a developed nation are the least likely to vote, and with youth unemployment and low income work at a high, it isn’t surprising to find voter turnout dipping for this generation.

The problem in promoting a ‘voting is cool’ message is that it perpetuates the idea that some young people aren’t voting because they think it’s ‘uncool’ – rather than feeling that it won’t make a difference.

Several organisations are working on promoting the idea that ‘voting is cool’ through a range of celebrity endorsements and social media campaigns that reward political participation. But the problem in promoting a ‘voting is cool’ message is that it perpetuates the idea that some young people aren’t voting because they think it’s ‘uncool’ – rather than feeling that it won’t make a difference, or that they don’t like the choices on offer. Aside from it being patronising, insulting and demonstrating exactly how society is alienating young people, it’s factually inaccurate.

There are countless other schemes – from Youth Parliament, to Student Politics — that aim to draw young people into the political system, each with their pros and cons, and all should be applauded for doing their part. But it will take more than these to tackle the belief that voting does not make a difference. How can we demonstrate instead that voting makes the ultimate difference? That without it, an entire generation leaves itself vulnerable to an unknown, possibly dystopic future –and that with it lies the power to evolve a political system that desperately needs an update, for the future generations to come?

What will be decided at the next general election is whether the UK will stay in the EU, whether the NHS will be fully privatised, and whether the benefits system will remain universal. Polls have consistently demonstrated that young people want to remain in the EU, to retain a public health system and keep a robust welfare state – but in two years all of that may be gone. With the wolf so close to the door, perhaps some cold hard (and impartial) truths on what the future of Britain would look like without those votes is a good place to start.

*Based on figures from the 2010 General Election.
**Daily UK newspaper readership peaked at about 15 million in the early 1960s.

Can under-18s be trusted with the vote? Join us on Nov 19 at Free Word Centre to debate whether the UK should lower the voting age to 16, and what makes someone trustworthy enough to be granted the right to vote.
Trust & the Vote: Free Word Centre, Weds 19 Nov

Coco Khan is a freelance journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of the Kensington and Chelsea Review.