Why I ...a gambling man, discount the youth vote

April 22, 2005

During the next two weeks it is reckoned that £40 million will be bet on various aspects of the general election. While the main result is almost a foregone conclusion bookmakers have created new betting vehicles, most of them online, and more than 150 different general election outcomes to tempt punters into risking their cash.

With the possible exception of bets on which party will win Cambridge and other seats with a high population of students, considerations about the 18-24 age groups do not feature highly when punters decide where to put their money. For the most part, the young are irrelevant because so few of them bother to vote.

This is seen starkly on the website that I run, Politicalbetting.com, where there are 400-500 contributions a day from people trying to predict the outcome of May 5. You can go for days without seeing a reference to the relative political importance of young voters except in the context of the Liberal Democrat strategy of trying to win inner-city seats in university towns and cities with large Muslim communities.

In her Daily Telegraph column at the end of March, Anne Robinson described a meeting she attended with the Conservative Party's campaign head, Lynton Crosby. "'What could best be done to encourage 18 to 24-year-olds to get out and vote?' demanded one enthusiastic guest, now clearly determined that no potential supporter should go undisturbed. Mr Crosby paused nicely. He smiled. It was true, he agreed, that, by and large, 18 to 24-year-olds did not bother to vote. Then, while we were all still nodding our heads at the sadness of youth being unprepared to take part in our democratic process, Mr Crosby quietly added - and without so much as a raised eyebrow - 'if they did, they predominantly voted Labour'."

This says it all. Elections are about winning, which means getting as many of your potential supporters as possible to vote. So those sections of society are targeted, and who can blame parties for ignoring the rest? Time and resources are scarce and the focus is on groups that promise a known return. Is it any wonder that the main reference to education in the policy platform of the main Opposition party is classroom discipline? Extensive research shows that this is the principal education concern of those most likely to vote - people in older age groups. It also sends out what has been dubbed in this campaign a "dog whistle" to the elderly about how the young in our society should be treated. If focus groups reveal that the old often feel frightened of the young, then an educational policy that emphasises discipline will do no harm.

It is not just the Conservatives who put great weight in policy terms on the concerns of people in the 55-plus age group - the section of society that is often twice or three times as likely to turn out at elections.

So in the run-up to the election announcement there was almost a Dutch auction between the Conservatives and Labour over who would do most for the old. The Conservatives announced generous aid for old people faced with increasing council tax bills. This was trumped by Gordon Brown in his Budget. He pledged, for the election year at least, £200 towards bills and free bus travel for pensioners.

At a time when public finances are under extreme pressure, there is little questioning of the Chancellor's strategy of using resources to focus on the section of society that is growing and is most likely to turn out.

If students and others in the 18-24 age group want to become politically more important, then the power is in their hands - they have to vote.

Otherwise the 2005 experience will be repeated in four years' time. Do political gamblers take account of what young voters do? Yes, of course, but not very much.

Mike Smithson, Director of development at Oxford University. In June he takes on the same role at York University. In his spare time he runs politicalbetting.com

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