The numbers… Let’s begin with a caveat: there are no official figures for the proportion of eligible 18-24 year-olds voting in general elections. The ones that I’ve used are from a 2011 academic study, which includes the most frequently referenced number for 2010. The British Election Study has produced other figures, quoted in a Commons library note, which are very similar except in one regard: they record a significantly lower number, of 54.1 per cent, for 1997.
…show that youth voting isn’t necessarily on the wane…Whichever figures you deploy, it’s clear that youth turnout is much lower than it used to be. At the last election it stood at 44 per cent, down from 66 per cent in 1987. But this is not a straightforward trend. The numbers were lower in 2001, and lower still in 2005. As for the forthcoming election, 41 per cent of young people say that they are certain to vote; but this number tends to rise when it comes to the vote itself.
…but it’s still troubling. Fluctuations aside, the overall trend testifies to young people’s disengagement from party politics; which is bad enough by itself. But, as the IPPR observed in their report Divided Democracy, it looks worse when compared to the turnout numbers for other age groups. The gap between 18-24 year-olds and the national average has increased from 9.3 per cent to 21.1 per cent. Unsurprisingly, it’s voters over 40, and particularly over 65, who push that average up.
Is compulsory voting the answer…Shudder. There’s something weird and un-British about the idea of compulsory voting, isn’t there? But this website’s founder, Tim Montgomerie, still managed to make a persuasive case for it in The Times (£) last week. Far better to ask a little of people’s time, once every five years, he argued, than to have a politics that contorts itself to appeal to older voters. That’s certainly what’s happened over this Parliament, with a £500 increase in the average amount of cash going to each pensioner.
…in part? But do we need compulsory voting wholesale? That same IPPR report made a more modest proposal: that voting be made compulsory, at pain of a fine, for first-time voters only. This makes sense because voting is what they call “habit forming”; once people pop to the ballot box they just can’t stop. Although there are questions, well expressed here, about whether this sort of special treatment would simply stoke young people’s antipathy towards Westminster.
Or, failing that, could we get some decent politicians? The best solution would be if politicians appealed to young people without being compelled to by the electoral system. It’s not that 18-24 year-olds don’t care: they care deeply about tuition fees, to take just one example. It’s more that they don’t feel represented: when asked “who do senior politicians pay most attention to?” young people place themselves last. But imagine if that were to change. At the very least, as I wrote for the Telegraph in 2008, there are votes in them thar hills.