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The Youth Voice

Ian Caistor-Parker 

Our Student laboratory was formed in response to the UK’s decision to leave the EU following the referendum of 2016. We founded it because we believed that Britain’s young people were being overlooked and marginalised in political conversations during the campaign and we wanted to address this issue. Since then we have seen changes in youth participation – not least an increase in interest and in turnout. This blog examines levels of youth participation in Britain and considers why young people may or may not participate I go on to say why it is so important for young people to be represented in political discussions.

Youth turnout has seen a consistent decline in almost all developed countries since 2000; part of this decline can be attributed to a general trend of falling interest in and lack of understanding about politics amongst all ages. However, the fall in youth participation in Britain by 2016 is particularly stark – from 60% in the early 1990’s to 43% in 2015 (every other age demographic recorded turnout of above 50% in 2015 peaking at 78% amongst over 65’s). This decline is so steady and significant it has led to bold statements from normally cautious political scientists. Colin Hay for example suggested that ‘each successive cohort of new voters has a lower propensity to vote than the previous one’ as if this had become an immutable law of politics. However, it must be noted that turnout amongst 18-24 year olds recovered significantly at the last election, IPSOS Mori estimate it at 54% but figures as high as 70% have also been quoted.

Some commentators dismiss this overall decline by arguing that young people are not apathetic to politics, they just participate differently: they focus on single issues and events instead of thinking within the framework of traditional party politics. While this has an element of truth to it (‘issues’ rather than parties appear to be playing an increasing role in political decisions) and has garnered significant attention, recent research has challenged the empirical basis of the claim [1]  showing that formal participation remains the primary way of enacting political change [2]. As a result, falling participation by young people inevitably means a decline in their political power.

Of all demographic groups, young people are the least engaged in formal politics, and their engagement levels in informal politics seem lower than that of the rest of the population. The reasons for this lack of participation can largely be divided into supply and demand factors [4].

On the ‘supply side’ some argue that there is little on offer in politics for young people, emphasising the lack of young politicians (or older politicians who act as proxies representing the interests of the young); focusing on how little in party manifestos focuses on issues that affect or interest young people; and showing that many young people see the political system as archaic and impenetrable due to complicated procedures and outdated traditions. This suggests young people would be more engaged in politics if only politicians and the political system made a better effort to engage them. That conclusion might be supported by the success of the Labour party in 2017 following deliberate and concerted attempts to target young people through familiar mediums such as social media and relevant issues such as tuition fees. We hope that our research will target supply side causes of depoliticisation by encouraging politicians to take the views of young people seriously and providing a platform for young people to discuss the political issues and decisions which impact on their lives.

‘Demand side’ explanations place the blame squarely at the feet of young people. These arguments stress that young people have little understanding of politics, make no attempt to engage with politics and are unable to see the positive contribution politics can make. In short: young people cannot be bothered with politics. This view conveniently exonerates the older generation and politicians from blame - if younger people displayed more interest in politics then their views would be taken more seriously they argue. This position conveniently overlooks factors such as the lack of political education in schools, the continual scandals which seem to engulf politics and undermine confidence in the integrity of politicians, and the fact that young people’s issues are often not addressed.

These explanations for low engagement are undoubtedly over-simplified, but they encapsulate the key accounts given of political apathy among young people. I favour ‘supply side’ explanations but probably a mixture of the two factors is at work causing the contemporary political apathy amongst young people.

Why should we be concerned? One reason is that greater youth participation would foster a stronger democracy (as more voices would be heard) and that would benefit everybody by increasing legitimacy of our leaders and the process of our elections at a time when they are under threat by re-surgent nationalist and populist movements. Young people may also introduce new positions and perspective into political debates, encouraging innovation, discussion and hence more effective government. Moreover, todays young are tomorrow’s middle aged – and we cannot afford to have a generation with little interest in or knowledge of the political system.

Moreover, there is significant research (Mark N. Franklin is the key figure in this) to suggest that whether a person participates in their first few elections has a significant bearing on their later propensity to vote [5], if our ‘cohort’ [6] fails to participate now they are less likely to participate in the future fuelling a vicious cycle of falling levels of engagement. Greater participation would help reverse the existing pattern - the younger generation are key to achieving this goal. We know that young people can make a difference when engaged, a lesson learnt in the 2017 election which defied all predictions largely as a result of an upsurge in young voters. This has both a direct impact (re-drawing the political map) and indirect (forcing the Tory party to consider reform to the tuition fee system). Above all, it is the youngest generation of voters who will be most affected by political decisions made in the next few years, especially those over Brexit. In finding our political voice we can work to ensure that our country is moving in a direction we as a generation are happy with. We may disagree with each other, but we ought to unite on wanting to have our say.



[2] Stuart Fox’s Phd (2015) is particularly illuminating. See p.34 for general overview of findings, more detailed breakdown of apathy vs alienation from p.110.

[4] Supply and demand factors permeate all of the existing literature but sometimes go under different names ‘push and pull’ for example

[5] See Mark N. Fraknlin Voter Turnout and the dynamics of electoral competition in established democracy’s since 1945, pp.12, 63.

[6] Stuart Fox focuses on the cohort vs life cycle models of turnout – see chapter 2.