Disaffected & Apathetic – the Generation X who may never vote
Apathetic and disaffected: the generation who may never vote
Evidence is showing that voting is a habit that millions may just never get into, particularly if they are less well off
Rowena Mason, political correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 26 December 2013 20.58 GMT
“Never voted,” says Michael Owen with a shrug. “My dad was on one side, my mum on the other, so I’m split.” The multimillionaire former England footballer is standing yards from the prime minister on a mission to promote sport overseas, but he happily admits he has not troubled a ballot box in three elections.
Like Russell Brand, who is furious with politicians, and Simon Cowell, who can’t be bothered, Owen is one of the never-voters who are particularly worrying experts.
Once, the theory was that people would drift towards the polls when they grew up and became mature, tax-paying citizens. But now the young disengaged are turning into the middle-aged disengaged, who may ultimately become a new phenomenon – the old disengaged. Evidence shows that voting is a habit that millions may just never get into, particularly if they are less well-off.
New Guardian/ICM research documents the trend of frustration with Britain’s political system, showing that almost half are angry with MPs and a quarter bored by the issues. This alienation is strongest among those aged 18 to 24, who are less than half as likely as pensioners to say they are sure to vote, and may never exercise their democratic rights if they miss their first election.
Deborah Mattinson, a former pollster to Gordon Brown and expert at BritainThinks, believes politicians have not begun to grasp the scale of the problem. “Voter disengagement is getting worse and worse,” she says. “Nobody is really taking it seriously enough.”
When Harold Wilson won the 1964 election, over three quarters of people cast their vote and turnout was roughly equal across the generations. But according to data from Ipsos Mori at the last election, 76% of over-65s were still voting, while only 44% aged 18-24 were doing the same.
“MPs just think, ‘oh, I’ll do just a bit of Twitter, it’ll be fine’,” Mattinson says. “But adopting those sort of vehicles for communication just showcases their otherness. What they tweet sounds so weird in most people’s eyes.”
Her research found many people have a feeling stronger than apathy: downright disaffection. “Young people don’t think institutions or politicians are the answer,” she says.
Although one-off events, such as the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, may contribute to disillusionment, the decline is longer and more structural, according to some academics, who suggest there may be a correlation between advanced, secure societies and lower political engagement.
“If you want me to be honest, no one really knows why and what’s happening,” says Dr Maria Grasso, an expert at Sheffield University.
One of the main theories is clustering of political parties on the centre ground, and weakening of the old ideologies of left and right. “If politicians don’t make you passionate, why should you participate? When parties move to the centre, you see certain people drop out. You saw many working-class people drop out completely when New Labour began,” she says.
Education is strongly associated with voting, she explains. But what if higher standards are also making people more critical? “One story is that they see that gap between promise and practice in politics more openly.”
The decline in young people who identify with a political party is another potential factor, says Stuart Fox, an academic at the University of Nottingham.
“That psychological link represented by the tendency that people have to say ‘I’m a Tory’ or ‘I always vote Liberal Democrat’, it’s missing for a much larger proportion of young people than any generation before that.”Some suggest younger people are simply channelling their political interests through single issues such as the environment or protesting about human rights. But Stuart Fox, an academic at Nottingham University, argues along with Grasso and Mattinson that people should be careful about this assumption. “The idea there is an almost secret underground of young people who are disengaging from elections but becoming very active in alternative arenas – joining Amnesty or boycotting products – there isn’t much evidence to support that,” he says.
That doesn’t mean non-voting youths are disinterested in politics.
According to the Guardian/ICM data, young people showed a higher degree of boredom with politics than older people, but still have an average of 49 political discussions per year and are overwhelmingly likely to think politics affect their lives.Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, believes teenagers are engaged, but a vicious circle means their views are not taken seriously enough. If you are a politician in a marginal seat with a free hour do you visit the sixth-form college or the residential care home? Probably the old people’s home, Khan says.
In part, this may explain why pensioners have kept hold of their free bus passes and TV licences for over-75s, while under-25s are targeted for benefit cuts and are struggling to find jobs.
Labour is investigating disengagement through its People’s Politics Inquiry, but Khan has also successfully argued within his party for lowering the voting age to 16, better citizenship teaching and polling stations inside colleges. “Then politicians will start to say: ‘You know what, they matter just as much as the silver vote.'”
Some academics are sceptical, noting downward trends in participation since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.
However, an increasing body of experts argues something must be done to arrest disengagement by winning over this so-called Generation Y, born after 1982, who are predicted to be poorer than their parents, and according to Ipsos Mori research, have a record low level of trust in their fellow man.Guy Lodge, of the IPPR thinktank, makes the case for an even more radical solution – compulsory voting for first-timers. The issue is particularly pressing given the impact of austerity on the disengaged, he argues. Unequal turnout matters because it threatens the central claim of democracy that every view should count equally.
“We have found non-voters are hit much harder than voters by the cuts,” he adds. “The turnout for affluent groups has not really fallen at all.”
However, ministers have dismissed votes at 16 as wrong and compulsory first-time voting as nanny state-ism. When it comes to engaging young people, the government’s big plan is £4.2m in funding for community groups to come up with their own ideas.
The other major piece of electoral reform is a move to individual, rather than household, registration, which could see even more young people fall off the political radar.Michael Sani, co-founder of the Bite the Ballot group, believes simply explaining the point of politics to young people would make a huge difference. The former teacher set out in 2010 to emulate the American Rock the Vote movement that has enrolled 5 million teenagers. Since then, Bite the Ballot has toured schools, signing up 15,000 new voters, and hopes to reach a target of 300,000 on National Voter Registration Day.
At the end of a session, sometimes a whole class has signed up with an easy-to-use registration form. It has even worked in a young offenders’ institute, says Sani.His conclusion is clear, as someone who has spent hours talking about politics with teenagers. They are deeply interested in topics from housing to transport, but too many do not identify these as political issues, do not know how to register or feel embarrassed about walking into a polling station.
It will be an uphill struggle, but Sani says writing off vast swaths of the electorate is not an option and asks: “How can you call people apathetic when they are not being told about how to vote and why it matters?”