Can the youth speak up in next week’s UK elections?
How about a little thought experiment with your Saturday morning coffee? It is election day in a major democracy — say the UK (which goes to the polls next week). In the picturesque seaside village of Marpledon, Patrick, 75, a retired bus driver, is looking forward to voting — and also initiating his grandson Thomas, 19 and newly eligible to vote, in this civic ritual.
After a leisurely lunch, grandfather and grandson walk to the polling station, talking politics. They discover they both plan to vote for the same party, Labour. Suddenly, Patrick receives a phone call. Thomas’ mother, who is bedridden with a broken ankle, is not feeling well. One of the two men must rush home immediately, thereby losing the chance to vote. Which one would you say it should be?
You might reasonably say it does not matter. After all, the theory of one vote per citizen is the foundational principle of modern democracy, so from a systemic point of view Patrick and Thomas are equal. And since both men plan to vote for the same party, no party or candidate stands to lose or gain from the decision (if anything, perhaps Thomas should skip voting as he can run home faster).
But I would submit that in the real world, their prospective votes have different meanings and implications. Patrick is a conscientious voter and has participated in many elections, but this would be Thomas’ first. And voting — like all things that are choices in human affairs — is a habit. Once you do it, you usually keep doing it.
In a way, then, Thomas’ one vote today represents the likelihood of another 10 or 12 from him over the course of this century. Furthermore, as a young person, Thomas has a greater stake in the future than Patrick does. His vote may lean the same way as his grandfather’s, but his concerns reflect those of his own generation. Taking all these things into account, Patrick sends Thomas on to the polling booth, and speeds home in a taxi.
The little parable I have presented has real relevance in the UK, and in next week’s election. For about 25 years now, the country has been experiencing a high degree of intergenerational difference in levels of turnout at general elections. And worryingly, even counterintuitively, it is the young who exercise their franchise far less than the old.
This substantial gap — call it turnout inequality — has so many consequences for politics and policy, social cohesion and trust, and the future of British democracy, that it has become a key point of focus in next week’s election.
In the 2015 vote, for instance, the gap in turnout between those above 65 and those aged 18-24 was 25 percent. Half a century ago, the difference was marginal, showing that young Britons see electoral politics today very differently from previous generations, and that the voting population is not being refreshed with new pools of voters as it should be.
Several reasons for this trend have been identified. One is attitudinal. Many young Britons are disillusioned with party politics, and skeptical of achieving meaningful choice, or change, by the exercise of the vote. They are not necessarily apathetic (as some older Britons understandably believe) but express their political opinions in other ways, such as by their consumption choices.
Another is technical. A new voter registration system unrolled in 2014 means that every voter must register individually on the national electoral register, and re-register each time they change their address (or indeed their name, as can happen when a young woman marries).
Young people are much more likely to live in rental housing — unaffordable house prices is itself a huge subject in British politics — and move across addresses than older voters, meaning that they are not on the electoral register or have slipped off it. One in three young Britons, the UK’s Electoral Commission estimates, are not registered to vote.
The problem of intergenerational turnout inequality is exacerbated in the UK by demographics. Life expectancy has increased hugely in the country over the last few decades, with the result that one in six Britons is now over 65.
Party politics in democracies is based, after all, on appeals to blocs of voters. And the size and stability of what has come to be called “the grey vote” in the UK means that parties lean toward protecting the interests of the old over those of the young (the real value of pensions has been protected in the last decade, for instance, while university tuition fees have trebled).
Many young Britons are disillusioned with party politics, and skeptical of achieving meaningful choice, or change, by the exercise of the vote.
This combination of trends — political, social, demographic — leading to turnout inequality and the marginalization of the youth arguably represents a crisis in British politics. In the lead up to next week’s election, many British public figures (such as the rapper Stormzy), NGOs and political parties — although not the ruling Conservative Party, which is preferred by older voters — have tried to address the problem by appealing to the youth to register to vote.
Others have called for actual changes in the law to address this problem. British political scientist Sarah Birch argues, for instance, that voting should be made compulsory, but only for newly eligible voters, as a way of initiating them in their political responsibilities and starting a virtuous cycle of participation.
So let us return to where we began. When Patrick sacrificed his vote for Thomas, perhaps he was also doing his bit to counteract the problem of turnout inequality in the UK. He was doing, as an older person, what British politics itself does not seem to doing enough right now: Investing in the future.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets