Once again, politicians, journalists and think-tanks are grappling with the problem of low political engagement, particularly amongst the young. And once again, we are seeing a host of ideas put forward to get young people engaged with politics and turning up at the polling stations, such as lowering the voting age, making voting compulsory for first time potential voters, and making better use of the Internet to communicate politics.
Some of these solutions could well be successful (although see here for an assessment of the plan to lower the voting age). Most of them, however, tend to focus on the relationship that young people have with politics, while their relationship with political parties is often overlooked. It is the way the relationship between young people and parties has changed, however, that has played a large role in changing young people’s political behaviour in recent years.
The relationship between the voter and political parties is one of the most significant features of modern democracy, influencing how voters interpret politics, reach judgements, view the performance of government, and how they participate in the political process. British politics, for example, is almost entirely framed from the perspective of political parties. With the exception of party leaders, journalists seldom report what an individual MP thinks about the potential invasion of Syria, or the ‘bedroom tax’, or what they would do about the economy. It is what the Labour Party or Tory Party would do that they are interested in. Even the views of party leaders are usually used as a proxy to say what their respective parties stand for or would do in government. Without their links and associations with political parties, therefore, voters would find the task of navigating and understanding British politics much more complex, and many would ultimately simply not bother to do so.
One way of examining the links between an individual and a political party is by looking at their party identification. This refers to the party with which they feel they have some form of affinity, or can most comfortably associate themselves. Figure 1 shows the importance of this association between citizen and party for political participation, using data from the 2010 British Election Study. Controlling for age, education, social class, gender, ethnicity and interest in politics, it shows the likelihood of people who identify with a party of participating in a range of political acts, versus those who do not.
It is clear that identifying with a political party makes people much more likely to participate in politics, and regardless of the type of act they may engage in. For example, someone who identifies with a political party typically has a 90% likelihood of voting in a European election, compared with 75% for a non-identifier. A party identifier has a 35% likelihood of taking part in a protest or demonstration, while a non-identifier has a 20% likelihood. Regardless of the method of participation, party identifiers are more likely to do it than non-identifiers. Having an association of some form with a political party, therefore, is clearly a key motivator of participation in the political process.
It is the changing relationship between young people and political parties that is essential to understanding their lack of motivation to engage with politics. In short, young people are becoming less and less likely to associate with or relate to our political parties. Looking again at party identification, Figure 2 illustrates that young people have become much less likely to identify with a political party in Britain since the 1990s. While there has been a steady decline of party identifiers in general (97% of the electorate identified to some extent with a party in 1974; by 2010 this had declined to 84%), the decline amongst the younger voters has been particularly steep. In 1974, 97% of 18 – 24 year olds identified with a political party – by 2010 it was just 61%.
By the time of the 2010 general election, more than 1 in 3 young people did not identify with a political party – in other words, more than a third of young voters lacked the association with a political party which is so central to mobilising them to participate in the political process. All the signs are that this trend of partisan dealignment is continuing, and that by the time of the 2015 general election, the proportion of young non-identifiers will have grown further. It seems likely, therefore, that the minority of young people who are motivated to vote in that contest will shrink further still.
It is one thing to show that young people are becoming less likely to identify with political parties and the effect this has on political participation. However, it is another challenge entirely to explain why it is happening, and what can be done about it. Potential explanations for this trend range from the increasingly educated and politically sophisticated nature of today’s young generations, to changes in the way we ‘do’ politics in modern society, to the continuing failure of political parties to sufficiently appeal to young voters. Finding this answer is no easy challenge, but it is one which politicians and political scientists must embrace if we are to understand – and reverse – the declining political engagement of young people in modern democracies.
This post is based on the paper ‘Social Change and the Evolution of the British Electorate’, presented at EPOP 2013 and available here.