You’re just a punch-bag for the Coalition!January, 10, 2012
Aaron Porter, former NUS President and regular OpinionPanel blogger, asks whether savage cuts to young people’s services might be the result of young people failing to engage in politics.
Over the last few years, young people could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been the butt of a series of damaging government policies. The recent recession has seen youth unemployment soar to over 1 million, there are as many as 80 applicants for every graduate position, the Educational Maintenance Allowance has been scrapped, as has the Future Jobs Fund and the AimHigher programme. In the last 7 years we have seen tuition fees treble twice, first by Labour in 2005 and then more recently by the Coalition – despite an explicit promise by the Liberal Democrats that they would vote against any increase whatsoever.
The government will undoubtedly turn to the deficit as the explanation for their recent decisions to take the axe to many of the services young people have relied on. But cynics might claim that a lack of political engagement from young people could be the reason behind these particularly acute measures. If you consider the relatively small amounts of money that the government have saved in scrapping initiatives like the EMA and AimHigher, and compare that with similar amounts of money spent on schemes benefiting pensioners, such as free bus passes and the Winter Fuel allowance (both of which are not means tested), it poses the question why young people appear to have consistently taken the hit to the benefit of others in society.
So, are young people really doing enough to engage with politics? A quick analysis of voting statistics shows that when it comes to elections they clearly are not. In the 2005 general election, only 37% of 18 – 24 year olds turned out to vote. Whilst that figure rose to around 44% in the 2010 general election, in part due to a more focussed drive to register young voters, it still looks pretty paltry when you compare that to the 76% of over-65-year-olds who voted. Faced with difficult decisions on spending, the government appear to have made some crude political calculations and decided that spending cuts for pensioners would cost them more votes than spending cuts for young people. Politically speaking, they are probably right.
So why is it that young people are voting in such small numbers, and what can be done to rectify it? Firstly, it’s worth noting that this is an historic trend. It’s not just the under 25s of recent years that are voting in lower numbers; the under 25s have tended to turnout in much smaller numbers than their elder counterparts for decades.
As with many things, education clearly has to be at the heart of the solution. A number of commissions and studies looking at the issue of young people’s engagement with politics have flagged up how citizenship education could be improved in school to stress the importance of voting, and how it can help influence issues like employment, benefits, taxation and services. Interestingly, in the run-up to the 2010 election, research by YouGov and the Social Market Foundation into how people develop voting habits has found that those who are old enough to vote while still at school are far more likely to vote again than those who have to wait until their 20s for their first chance. In the 2001 election, for example, turnout among 27-year-olds was 49%, compared with 65% among 28-year-olds who had been old enough to vote in the 1992 election.
The campaign behind lowering the voting age to 16 has also gained momentum. There are some who feel that giving 16-year-olds the chance to vote will help to drive up youth participation overall by opening up the political process to them a little earlier. Particularly to combat the fact there are large numbers of 16 and 17 year olds who feel disenfranchised by being prevented from voting, especially when you consider they are old enough to pay taxes, get married, have sex and even die for their country. But others claim that 16 is too young, that they may not have had the time to properly form an opinion about voting and should therefore continue to wait until they are 18. At present, Austria is the only country in Europe that has introduced votes at 16.
At the end of 2011, analysis from credit information firm Experian found a worrying trend with the number of young people even registered to vote. According to their figures, only 520,000 who had turned 18 were registered, which is around 55% of those eligible. Yet this compares with an estimated 1.05m 18 year olds with Facebook accounts. It led to the understandably striking headlines that twice as many 18-year-olds had Facebook accounts, compared to being registered to vote.
So should voting be compulsory? In Australia this is the system they have, where all citizens above the age of 18 have to be registered to vote and fines are administered for those who do not vote. Whilst this unsurprisingly leads to higher voter turnout, I remain unconvinced that any compulsory system would really lead to greater genuine engagement.
There is proof that technology could provide the solution for encouraging greater numbers of young people to engage with politics, though. It is not that they aren’t interested in expressing an opinion, it’s just a feeling that the debate does not take place in a medium in which they feel it should. A lot is made of the fact that millions of people, huge numbers of them under the age of 25, are prepared not just to express an opinion but also to vote on a weekly basis for programmes like the X Factor and Big Brother. But in part this is because that vote can be made with the click of a button or a text message. Considering issues beyond reality TV talent contests, it was interesting to note that the Electoral Commission website www.aboutmyvote.co.uk had 1.8m visits around the last general election, nearly half of which came from 18 – 24-year-olds.
Whilst security and the ability to ensure that those eligible individuals are only able to vote once needs to be fundamental in any electoral system, surely it should not be beyond the realms of possibility for there to be proper consideration given to online voting for national ballots.
We shouldn’t ignore the fact that young people are simply not voting in great enough numbers. The real solution lies in education, technology and a change in culture: a huge shift in attitude toward voting and politics in general is needed to really start get young people punching above their weight, rather than consistently appearing to be the punch-bag for difficult political decisions.
What do you think?
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