Young people in the UK are increasingly disillusioned with electoral politics. Over the past three General Elections, an average of 40 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted, while 60 percent of this age group turned out to vote in the 1992 General Election. My research finds that the youth turnout rate in the United Kingdom is the lowest of all the 15 members of the old European Union; 18 to 24-year-olds in Sweden turn out to vote at double the rate of their peers in the UK.
So, there is a disturbing disconnection between the current generation of young people and the political system. This problem is likely to be exacerbated by the introduction of individual voter registration. A recent BBC investigation highlighted the dramatic fall in the number of registered voters in areas with a high concentration of students (as much as 60 percent in some Oxford wards).
However, we should not make the mistake of thinking that younger citizens are apathetic or in some way apolitical. They are politically active – from the ballot box, to consumer politics, to online activism – in issues that have relevance for their everyday lives. We saw this in dramatic form with the Iraq War protests and the student tuition fees/ Education Maintenance Allowance rallies and occupations. And, if we look closely enough, we can see this in our localities, as today’s young people are actually more civically engaged than their predecessors.
Nevertheless, the disconnection between young people and electoral politics is problematic. If young people do not vote, then politicians will be (even) less likely to listen to their concerns, and so younger citizens will become more disillusioned with formal politics and public policy.
How do we break this vicious circle?
In recent decades, we have witnessed a move from politics to policy, so that young Britons are more interested in issues (as opposed to party politics) than was the case for young people twenty or thirty years ago. Second, we know that knowledge about politics and how it operates increases the likelihood that an individual will vote or become engaged in some other form of political action. Third, young people are no longer attracted by political institutions (note the decline and ageing of political party membership and the rise of youth protest movements such as Occupy), but prefer to engage with one another peer-to-peer, and often online.
In this context, the launch of Verto, a Voter Advice Application (VAA) prepared by Demos and Bite the Ballot, is to be warmly welcomed. VAAs have the potential to address the disengagement of young people with electoral politics in each of three ways, by a) engaging young people with policy issues, b) explaining where the parties stand on these issues, and c) doing this in attractive way that can be shared with one another easily via social media.
Verto is a multi-platform voter advice application, which can be accessed on any device from www.verto.vote.
James Sloam is reader in politics and co-coordinator of the Youth Politics Unit at Royal Holloway University. He has published widely on the subjects of youth politics and youth protest in Europe and the United States. Shorter pieces on youth participation can be found on the Fabian Society and LSE Europe websites and in the Political Studies Association’s Political Insight magazine.