What is it that puts young people off voting … and can they really influence the results?
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics suggests we have over 123,000 people aged between 18 and 24 living in our boroughs. That’s 32,345 in Croydon, 26,530 in Hackney, 27,284 in Lewisham and 36,984 in Tower Hamlets.
Many have said it’s the youth vote that could swing what is arguably the most important democratic decision in a generation, so on June 23, when Britain decides whether to remain in or leave the European Union, these votes will count. Research by business group London First suggests that only 42 per cent of eligible voters in London are registered, with some of the worst turnouts so far falling in ELL boroughs. At EastLondonLines, we want to see as many young people in our boroughs and beyond registered to vote in the referendum – that’s why we’re running this campaign.
If our work is done and you’re already convinced, click the link above. If not, read on as we investigate the reasons young people don’t vote, and take a look back to past elections to see how a bigger turnout between 18 to 24-year-olds might have affected the play.
A quick search will tell you that in the UK and the world over, it’s the older generation who are most likely to make it to the polling station. The graph below shows voter turnout by age category for the general election in 2015, when just 43 per cent of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 took part.
We don’t think the old rhetoric of a generation too lazy to vote will do; it doesn’t address the range of factors that deters young from voting people and it certainly doesn’t inspire anyone to change their ways.
Looking deeper into the conversation around the youth vote reveals some telling facts about why the turnout gap between our young old is the largest in the EU…
There’s no one to represent their needs
Millicent Scott, from the Democratic Society, told EastLondonLines: “Voter turnout figures from previous elections show that younger people are desperately underrepresented in elections in the UK. Sadly, I have no reason to believe that the EU referendum will be any different.” Because the issues they care about receive little air-time, party politics starts to feel irrelevant, and politicians seem increasingly out of touch – something which a quick look at many government-sponsored outreach campaigns only seems to confirm.
Young people feel they have no stake in society
Generation rent, gen Y, millennials…whatever name you choose to give, young people are taking longer and longer to settle down, and not least because of rising house prices. The economic impact and resulting disillusionment that this has created has been well documented. With no children or property, and often unstable employment, young people have less of an interest in the political decisions which affect infrastructure and education.
Young people live transient lifestyles
Hopping between constituencies has become more commonplace; a quarter of 19-year-olds in Britain move from one local authority to another in a year. Many college and university students also have a term time and home address.
Naomi Smith, Europe director of business group London First told The Evening Standard: “Soaring rents mean young Londoners move around a lot, and along with changes to voter registration, there are an alarming number of young people missing from the electoral register.”
Politicians target the old
Writing in The Telegraph, James Kirkup said: “From pensions policy to planning rules that make it harder to build new houses, you can see the power of the grey vote in action just about everywhere.” Politicians, armed with the knowledge that baby boomers and pensioners are more likely to give them the votes they need, will adjust their policies accordingly, in a vicious cycle that pushes young people further away from engagement with the system. Scott said that the party in-fighting has not helped: “It’s not just the youth vote they’re failing to appeal to. It’s turning into a rather officious bun fight of claim and counter claim which is turning lots of people off the debate.”
Politics isn’t encouraged in schools
Scott stressed the importance of making students and young people “aware of what’s at stake and the importance of voting.” Most schools in Britain don’t put a particular emphasis on politics, so many people grow up with a limited knowledge of our political system and democracy itself. Depending on their circumstances, many under 25s are left bombarded with information they don’t know how to engage with.
Scott said: “The decision about the future of our country and its international standing is too important to leave to chance. Young people’s voices need to be heard as strongly as any other age group’s, maybe even more because it’s [their] future that’s being decided.”
Social Media has provided different ways to engage with politics
Our young people are sometimes painted as idle and unambitious, but in fact, millennials are more active in their communities than in previous generations. Social media has given young people a way to engage directly with the big issues and causes they believe in. Now that “activism is at [their] fingertips,” many young people prefer to “go around” the party system, and straight to what matters to them.
Taking the same data from the 2015 general election, the graph below shows how the votes were divided within each category. It highlights the fact that young people are often more concerned with traditionally left wing causes such as the environment, and more accepting of immigration.
The Conservative party won, but taking the above figures, just 15 per cent more of the existing voters in the two youngest groups would have needed to vote for Labour to bring a tie. If turnout among those categories had been as high as in the oldest two, a very different result might have presented itself.
Party politics aside, this vote will be a referendum, and there will be no multiple options; just two. We’ve heard all the reasons above and more about why our young people don’t vote, but we hope young people reading this will feel like they’re not alone. In a message to students, Scott said: “Your vote counts as much as the Prime Minister’s or Nigel Farage’s. In the EU referendum we all have an equal say in the future path of this country. That includes you.
“Democracy depends on participation. Take control. Take part. Vote.”