With just 61 days to go until polling stations open across the United Kingdom, party election campaigns are well under way. In 2010, voter turnout was at 65%. The over-65’s demographic had an overall turnout of 76%. Amongst 18-24 year olds, however, turnout was only 44% and recent polls indicate that number will be even lower on 7th May.
This is a big problem in UK politics, and a relatively recent phenomenon, with only a 4% difference in turnout between the young and old in 1987. In our democracy politicians have to focus their efforts to maximise votes, so they will inevitably dangle more voting incentives to the segments of the electorate that are more likely to get out and vote.
When you look at the disparity in voter turnout between the young and the old, it’s no surprise that in this government University tuition fees have increased when the welfare entitlements of pensioners have been steadfastly protected. Young people are being disproportionately neglected because there aren’t enough votes to persuade those in power to shift their focus towards them. The silver vote gets courted while the youth of today get hit hardest. And it is a worrying reality that this only makes young people even less likely to cast their vote on 7th May.
The Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Sadiq Khan, recently summed up the situation: “If you have got a candidate with an hour spare and a choice to go to an old people’s home or a sixth form college, 99% of campaign managers will say you’ve got to go to an old people’s home.”
There is an asymmetry of voting influence on our representatives and it’s only getting worse, with an aging population and fewer young people voting.
Politics is where principle clashes with pragmatism, and young people are the victims. And this is simply due to politicians responding to incentives. There’s no conspiracy here. No evil plotters behind the scenes. But that almost makes the situation even more depressing.
So why don’t more 18-24 year olds vote? Many reasons have been put forward. Some believe that young people are simply too lazy to participate in politics. They think that we are too busy texting, taking pictures of our food and ogling Kim Kardashian’s arse to look up and think about who runs our country. But this explanation is a lazy stereotype and completely untrue. It is abundantly clear that across the country there are young people who are fiercely passionate about social action.
It could be argued that young people don’t vote because they don’t yet feel as though they have a stake in wider society, and that it is only as a person begins to settle down and have children that they sense that they have a direct interest in issues such as affordable housing, taxation, healthcare, education, the job market, transport and childcare – the bread and butter subjects of politics.
One reason why lots of young people don’t vote is that many of them are not exposed to political discussion. There is very little, if any, formal political education in schools. This means that if a child’s family does not discuss politics at the dinner table then there is no initial stimulus for that child to even think about it. And there’s evidence to suggest that if people don’t engage in politics early on, they never will. If this continues then a few decades down the line we might live in a society with a passive majority who don’t vote or even voice their opinions about the issues that affect all of our lives.
Russell Brand has tapped into the public’s widespread disenfranchisement and frustration with Westminster and the ‘political class’, and has done a good job of drawing people’s attention to causes that would otherwise be overlooked by the mainstream media. But for all his well-meaning intentions, Russell ‘fuck-the-system’ Brand is not helping the situation when he encourages people not to vote. He talks about bringing down our current democracy without offering a viable alternative and argues that people shouldn’t bother voting until he gets his revolution.
What’s so alarming here is that the people who agree with Russell about not voting are not doing it out of apathy, but out of anger. Russell undoubtedly has some good points to make but in the time between the upcoming general election and his desired parliamentary revolt he must urge people to express their political preferences in the current system. Discussing political, social and electoral reform is imperative and there are huge problems that need to be addressed, but change will never come about if people do not organise. Otherwise they lose their influence.
Politics is far more interesting than it sometimes appears to be, and the decisions made at the top make huge differences to the quality of people’s lives.
Politics is also very complicated, and large sections of the mainstream media have done a poor job of untangling the issues and informing the electorate, which is vital for a healthy democracy. After all, the first step in solving a problem is recognising there is one.
Politicians could certainly do more to bridge the gap between themselves and young people, but we can only place so much blame on the media and public officials. Now we have to deal with the problem ourselves and get young people engaged in political discourse, because the problem of voter turnout amongst the millennial generation is self-perpetuating. The less young people vote, the more politicians will be able to ignore their concerns without being punished at the ballot box. The less politics has to offer young people the less likely they are to turn up to polling stations the next time round. It’s a circle, and it’s vicious. Which is why they call it that.
This May millions of young people will have their first opportunity to vote in a general election. There are 5.6 million 18-24 year olds in the UK; that’s 11.3% of the population. If the opportunity is seized, the millennial generation could make a decisive difference in what is a very tight race. 18-24 year olds represent a huge amount of latent political leverage that could tip the balance strongly in their favour. Politicians would have no choice but to respond by catering better to the needs of this demographic and real change would be made.
Most young people are not apathetic. They are angry and alienated. We are disproportionately ignored by the powers that be and those that do vote feel demoralised under this administration, but the only way to change that is for young people to start flocking to polling stations en masse.
To those people who have problems with the status quo in this country but don’t vote or get organised: you have limited scope to complain. Because, and there’s no easy to way to say this, you are part of the problem. Despite what some people say, it matters who is in power. We have the collective ability to decide who determines the future of the United Kingdom but if people do not get out and vote the government will never receive a proper mandate from the people. The millennial generation needs to vote, for all our sakes.
You can register to vote in the constituency of either your home or term-time address. Make sure you’re on the electoral register before the April 20th deadline.