Youth turnout in UK general elections has declined significantly in recent decades. More than 60 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 1992 election, compared with an average of about 40 per cent since 2002.
Youth turnout in the UK is among the lowest in Western Europe. For example, about double the proportion of young Swedes vote in national elections. The problem is particularly apparent among young people of low socio-economic status. Only a quarter of those who leave school with no qualifications vote, compared with three-quarters of university students.
Then there is the additional issue of voter registration. With the introduction of Individual Voter Registration in 2014, more than 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 encourage young people to the polls, the decline in youth turnout has not been reversed.
However, there is evidence to show that young people are interested in politics and engage in a 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. Young people are often interested and engaged in key issues but are put off by politicians and political parties.
This was demonstrated by the 2016 European Union referendum, when 60 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds turned out to vote on this issue. But most young people were disappointed by the result. About three-quarters of this age group (and 82 per cent of university students) voted for the UK to remain in the EU.
It is 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 among 18- to 24-year-olds in 2015, while losing ground among older voters. The Green Party also performed much better (and the UK Independence Party much worse) among 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 per cent of 25- to 49-year-olds) intend to vote Labour, compared with 31 per cent nationally (and only 14 per cent of over-65s). Only 22 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds support the Conservative Party, compared with 66 per cent of over-65s.
The EU referendum – alongside opposition to the rise of nationalist populism in the US (with the election of Donald Trump), France and elsewhere – may have had a politicising effect on young people. Currently, 56 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds claim that they will certainly vote, compared with just 46 per cent at a similar point before the 2015 general election. So there are some signs of optimism.
But all politicians and political parties must 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. In 2017, Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are in front, with the Conservatives and Ukip languishing behind. The recent debate over social care illustrates how 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 the final days of campaigning, political parties try to broaden their appeals to reach a younger audience.
James Sloam is the director of European studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. The university has launched a collaborative campaign for all universities, calling for young people to ensure that their voices are heard in the upcoming election using the hashtag #VoteBecause.