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Chloe Smith is a former Cabinet Office Minister, and is MP for Norwich North.

One of our great reforming Conservative Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, tried to break down the barriers between “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” [1]

Are there still two planets?  Yes: the figures suggest there’s a dwindling tribe of older voters and a growing camp of young non-voters.  The Hansard Society reported in 2013 that only 12 per cent of 18-24 year olds plan to vote. [2]

This article presents the tipping-point facing British democracy, and is the first of four articles which will go on to examine:

  • What young people are choosing to do instead of vote.
  • What policies are important to young people.
  • How the Conservative Party should respond.

I was first elected to the Commons at the age of 27.  I’ve been one of the youngest Ministers in British history at 28.  I first got interested in politics when I was trying to set up a youth forum in Norfolk, where I grew up and where I have the privilege to be a Member of Parliament today.  So for me it’s obvious that young people have a place at the heart of democracy.  As a former minister for electoral registration, I have publicly promoted ways to get more young people registered to vote.  But that is only the start and all of us who care about the public sphere want young people to go on to take their place as leaders in their own right.  We have a Conservative opportunity to work in a totally new market.

Some people don’t agree that there’s a problem.

Firstly, some take comfort in the notion that it is scaremongering to discuss intended turnout, because all those young people do all just turn out regardless of what they say before the election, don’t they?  No, they don’t, in comparison to their elders.  Actual turnout relates enormously to age.  Whilst turnout in the 2010 general election was 65.1 per cent across all age groups, it was over three quarters for pensioners and under a half for those 18-24, and other age groups were arranged neatly between these extremes.[3]  Lord Ashcroft’s polls in the peak of the recent Euro elections showed the same distribution by age in turnout intention.[4]

Secondly, some find it reassuring to think that young people are just going to bounce into the same behaviour that their parents or grandparents did, when they hit a certain point in the lifecycle.  I don’t believe they will.  Three things have changed.  This generation reports less interest in traditional politics when asked, less belief that voting is a civic duty, and less affiliation with parties.

Today’s 18-24 year olds won’t settle down to voting once they get married and get a mortgage – and indeed, if democracy were banking on that happening we’d be waiting a long time, when marriage occurs later, if at all, and house prices crush most twenty-somethings’ hopes of owning a home.

For the individual, voting is a habit that must be formed, and like many habits, it sticks if it is formed early.  And if individuals aren’t doing that any longer, we have “a barometer of broader patterns of change with lasting repercussions” [5];  “a window into the future behaviour of Western citizens.”[6]

As those who are in the voting habit pass away, and those who are not in the voting habit increase in number, traditional British democracy has an existential problem. Generational divergence challenges democracy, because democracy has to balance the interests of different generations.  And if mass rejection of voting really does happen, it will delegitimise democracy and the state.

Britain’s problem is pretty bad when compared to Europe and the United States, too.

The UK is the sick man of Europe for turnout by 18-24 year olds. “Participation rates in the UK and Ireland are worrying low across the board…Young Britons participate at a disturbingly low rate,” says James Sloam. [7]

And the latest Pew research suggests that in the US, turnout among younger voters has been remarkably solid [8] – although US turnout at all ages has always been lower than in the UK.  Indeed, a comparative study of the US, UK and Germany shows that the gap between American youth turnout and overall turnout has changed little over the last 40 years, whilst Britain’s gap has worsened dramatically. [9]

So, young people vote less than their elders everywhere, but Britain’s problem has got worse.  Again, it’s not about young people being young like they always have been – something has broken.

So if this is a British problem and an increasing one at that, is it also a problem for all parties?  Yes, in the sense that political parties in general are out of favour.  They are seen as divisive, dishonest, disinterested and hierarchical.  2015’s first time voters have “a considerable aversion to formal, professional politics.” [10]  Lord Ashcroft’s Euro polling shows that more people aged 18-34 are moving away from all four parties including UKIP (the biggest rejection is of UKIP and the Lib Dems) than are moving towards them. [11]

But a low youth turnout that stands to sweep through society is a particular problem for any party that relies on older voters.  And low youth turnout even now is damaging to the Conservative Party through the pro-urban, pro-Labour boundary bias, says the Electoral Reform Society.[12]  Furthermore, there is some initial evidence that “young people are more likely to be concentrated in more marginal constituencies…Constituencies with a high number of young people seem to hold greater sway at general elections” [13] – if they turn out.

Is it limiting to fight over a brand of cola when consumers are stopping buying either Pepsi or Coke in favour of mineral water? [14]  Well, from every problem comes an opportunity.  We have an exciting Conservative chance to communicate with a whole new market.

We know that this group look to themselves to take action, and look to businesses, charities and action groups to achieve things for their chosen community.  Actions that the state can take come a long way down the list, according to research by Demos.  Even The Guardian has been forced to admit that “Generation Y is backing the Conservatives”[15].

The latest Ipsos Mori polling, Generation Strain [16], shows that support in Generation Y for the Conservatives has doubled since 2005 (although our party still lags Labour in this age group, its support has plateaued and Lib Dem support crashed).

Looking at important policy areas, the same data shows a decline in support across the board for redistribution and high welfare spending, but with the youngest generation in particular least in favour.

Generation Y, like any other group, backs its own values and aspirations.  I want politics in Britain to work for Generation Y.  And I want to show clearly that the principles of the small state, responsible economics, freedom, enterprise and social liberalism matter for this generation as they have always mattered – and that you can have them through a Conservative vote.

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Footnotes:

[1] Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845)

[2] The Hansard Society, Audit of Political Engagement 2013.  This figure has decreased yearly and academics and pollsters are investigating whether disengagement now is greater than in previous generations.

[3] The Electoral Reform Society, The UK General Election 2010 In-depth http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/images/dynamicImages/file4e3ff1393b87a.pdf

[4] Table 1, http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ANP-140527-Full-tables.pdf

[5] Andy Furlong and Fred Cartmel, ‘Social Change and Political Engagement Among Young People:  Generation and the 2009/2010 General Election Survey’, Parliamentary Affairs (2012) 65, 13-28

[6] Stuart Fox, ‘Social Change and the Evolution of the British Electorate’, Paper presented at the EPOP Conference 2013, University of Lancaster

[7] James Sloam, ‘The Outraged Young:  How Young Europeans Are Reshaping the Political Landscape’, Political Insight April 2013

[8] Michael Dimock, Vice-President Research, Pew Foundation, in The Next America, April 2014

[9] James Sloam, ‘New Voice, Less Equal:  The Civic and Political Engagement of Young People in the United States and Europe’, Comparative Political Studies published online 3rd September 2012

[10] Matt Henn and Nick Foard, ‘Young People, Political Participation and Trust in Britain’, Parliamentary Affairs (2012) 65, 47-67

[11] Table 6, http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ANP-140527-Full-tables.pdf

[12] The Electoral Reform Society, The UK General Election 2010 In-depth http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/images/dynamicImages/file4e3ff1393b87a.pdf

[13] Dr Craig Berry, ‘The rise of gerontocracy?  Addressing the intergenerational democratic deficit’, for the Intergenerational Foundation, 2012

[14] “Both are losing cola drinkers in America as consumers switch from fizzy, sugary drinks to healthier water, tea, juices and sports drinks.”  The Economist, ‘Cola Wars, Continued’, March 17th 2012.  http://www.economist.com/node/21550263

[15] The Guardian, John Harris, 26.6.13

[16] Slides presented to House of Commons 8th May 2014 and http://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/1613_sri-understanding-society-generations-october-2013.pdf

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