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Articles > Money January, 10, 2012

You’re just a punch-bag for the Coalition!

January, 10, 2012

Aaron Porter , HE consultant, freelance journalist, former President of the NUS Chief Columnist. Member since Sept 2011.
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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.

Young people seem to be bearing the brunt of government cuts. Photo by asplosh

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 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.

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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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  1. Alex Hughes
    January 18, 2012 at 12:11 am

    The second question is ridiculous! What would improve turnout? – Of course it’d be to make voting compulsory, because people would HAVE to vote!!

    Also I agree that, possibly, MOST 16 year old would not understand what they were voting for, but there are a lot of 16 year olds who are very interested in politics. Moreover, the 16 year olds who knew nothing about politics would probably not make the effort to enrol on the electorate roll.

    And also, there are many 16 year olds with full-time jobs who therefore do pay tax and so therefore should be allowed a vote. In any case, if you’re going to be pedantic, everyone in fact pays tax – for example every one pays VAT because everyone buys things… although I’m not saying that like 10 year old should be allowed to vote.

  2. Roxanne Goodrem
    January 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Personally, I don’t think that 16 year olds should have the right to vote mainly because they are unaware of what they are actually voting for. 16 year olds do not have to pay tax or worry about what new laws and changes the government will proceed with. 18 year olds should vote if they are generally interested in changes that need to be made for the better rather than “compulsory voting”. Voting online is a great way to influence voting. No one really wants to be messing around with more paperwork, do they? Online voting will influence 18+ year olds which will increase the voting percentage well over 44%. It is an easy way to put their point across without worrying about filling out forms and sending them off. Clearly, if the way we vote does not change, the percentage of young voters will only increase a little over 14% over 3 years. I agree with Graham, everything now days is done online. Maybe it’s time the government is up to date with the 21st century technology and create online voting.

  3. Rebecca Witterick
    January 12, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    I personally think that politics is just a popularity contest. From the votes for headboy/girl, to the student council all the way through to the sabbatical elections at university. People just don’t care any more, and the only people who tend to vote are those who are friends with people that stand; because everyone else just doesn’t care. To get more people into politics the political parties in this country need to spend more time on their youth programmes to get people more interested in actual politics, rather than making it compulsary for them to vote, or merely being able to vote online. What is the point of having a vote if you do not care who wins, or if you just vote on who you think is the prettiest? People need to pay attention to what candidates want, whether it is in a school, a college, a university, a town, or the country.

  4. Kitty
    January 10, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    I agree that there should be the possibility of voting online, I do think that’d make a lot more people likely to vote; and not just teenagers. However I believe the real issue stems from teenagers, and most people in general, not being politically educated enough. If voters don’t know the policies of the parties how are they going to know who to vote for? As a teenager who is interested in politics I believe that it is extremely healthy to know what’s going on in government. A lot of people take the view that decisions made by government do not affect them in their every day lives, however the increased tuition fees are enough to change that opinion.

  5. Graham
    January 10, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    It’s ridiculous that you can’t vote online. Shopping, banking, everything’s on the net now. But to vote you’ve either got to go and put a piece of paper in a box, or mess about with a postal vote. You might as well try to do it by messenger pigeon.

    • Christ
      March 14, 2012 at 7:44 am

      Well, I’m not here to argue on this, but i’ll just disagree. I’m sure there relaly are examples of attempts to supress certain voters, I just can’t see this being one specifically. There is already an obstacle created given you need to register to vote at least in my state. If you wanted to make it easy, just let anyone vote where and when they want regardless of age, or whatever. How much regulation is right I don’t know.One thing that is most interesting is what rights people get up in arms about. Are you as interested when say our 2nd amendment rights are curtailed or some other constitutionally guaranteed right is tinkered with? I guess we’re all human and have a certain amount of hypocrisy built in to our being. I know this is off subject, but more general to yours and my views.

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