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Will a Labour government fill our schools with eager young voters? Probably not…

“The crisis of youth unemployment risks creating a generation that is disengaged…a generation that believes they have no stake in the country”, Michael Dugher, Labour party vice-chairman, recently told the Yorkshire Post. He calls for giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote so that they have “a tangible way of expressing their views”, and that this is “just what the country needs to engage young people in politics”. He suggests that a commitment to lower the voting age to 16 could be included in Labour’s 2015 manifesto.

Andrew Adonis – member of the House of Lords and a minister in the last Labour Government –  agrees, and argues that schools need to play a key role in re-engaging young people with British democracy. To that end, he suggests that polling stations should be located in every secondary school, to encourage newly enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds to vote.

So would a Labour government in 2015 lead to our secondary schools being full of eager 16 and 17 year old voters in time for the 2020 General Election?

The answer is: probably not. Just like taking a horse to water is no guarantee that it will have a drink, giving 16 and 17 year olds the opportunity to vote does not necessarily mean that they will. Voters need to have at least some interest and engagement with the world of politics to be motivated to turnout; the Audit of Political Engagement – an annual survey of engagement with British politics conducted by the Hansard Society – shows that young people are among the least likely to have such motivation.

For example, in 2011 just 34% of 18-24 year olds reported having some or high interest in politics, compared with 45% of over 25s. The Audit found that no more than one in four young people could be considered to have ‘high’ knowledge about British politics, compared with one in three over 25s. And when the Audit examined the belief that voting is an important part of civic duty, around 60% of young people agreed that it was their civic duty to vote in a General Election, compared with around 80% of over 25s.

It isn’t just these indicators that put the fly in the ointment of Michael Dugher’s and Lord Adonis’ optimism, however. When directly asked whether or not they will vote, young people openly state that they are less likely to do so: they typically report a 6.5 likelihood of voting on a 1 – 10 scale, compared with 8.2 for someone aged over 25. Young people in Britain have less motivation to engage with politics than older people, and this translates into a much lower likelihood of voting in elections.

There are those – including Lord Adonis and Michael Dugher – who would argue that by engaging people in the process of voting while they are young, Britain’s youth will be given more of an incentive to take an interest in politics and so become more likely to engage with it. In 1970, however, 18-20 year olds were given the vote, and as the Audit of Political Engagement illustrates, this has done nothing to bring their interest in or knowledge of politics in line with that of the rest of the country.

There is, therefore, little reason to believe that a simple reduction in the voting age will overcome any of the obstacles – such as lack of interest, low knowledge, and a weaker perception of the importance of voting – standing between many young people and the polling station.

Stuart Fox is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Nottingham.

Published inBritish Politics

One Comment

  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    All of which is true as far as it goes. But there is no reason to suppose that a future Labour government would not also encourage schools and colleges to address the “obstacles”. It would after all only be an act of self-interest.

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