The deserted ballot-box

Key facts and statistics: A picture of political disengagement in 2001.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

A picture of political disengagement in 2001

Whether surveys on youth attitudes to politics are commissioned by the left or the right, all conclude the same thing:

people are less likely to vote than ever before

young people know less about politics than ever before

young people care less about politics than ever before.

Key points:

Turnout in the 1997 UK general election was the lowest since the Second World War

Recent polls have indicated that the 2001 general election will be even lower. One survey put it at 65 percent

Young people are less likely to be registered to vote than any other age group

Young people are less likely to vote than any other age group

More young people than any other age group think that voting is not really important

Young people have less of a sense that they have a duty to vote than any other age group

Young people are not sure that voting makes a difference

Making voting more convenient would not necessarily make young people vote (but it might do)

Young people express less interest in politics than any other age group, and that at any time before

Young people know less about politics than any other age group

Young people trust politicians more than older people do, but respect them less

Young people do not have strong views regarding broader questions of citizenship

Young people seem to be no more excited by the ‘new’ politics of direct action and volunteering than they are by traditional politics.

Analysis:

For a discussion of the youth apathy issue, read Jennie Bristow:

‘So what if young people’s attitude to politics is “so what”? Every proposal made about how to engage them in politics will only push them further away.’

Wake up! The truth about youth apathy by Jennie Bristow

For an analysis of the obsession with the Grey Vote, read Phil Mullan:

‘As politicians compete to bribe the Grey Voting bloc, they reveal the depth of their contempt for the elderly.’

Going for Grey by Phil Mullan

KEY FACTS AND STATISTICS

1) Voting behaviour

Turnout in UK general elections has been falling since 1945. Young people are even less likely to vote than any other age group.

a) Turnout in the 1997 UK general election was the lowest since the Second World War.

Turnout to UK general elections 1945 – 1997

Source: Electoral Reform Society

b) Recent polls have indicated that the 2001 general election will be even lower. One survey put it at 65 percent.

‘When asked how likely they were to vote next time, only 65 percent claimed it was “very likely” and if this works as a predictor then the 2001 general election is set to have the lowest turnout of any since Lloyd George went to the country in 1918.’

Source: Citizen audit conducted by Paul Whiteley, with professors Patrick Seyd and Charles Pattie, paid for by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and based on a sample of 3000 adults. Reported in the Guardian, 1 March, 2001

c) Young people are less likely even to be registered to vote than any other age group.

The Adam Smith Institute claimed in 2000 that:

Only 60 percent of 18-24 year olds say they are registered to vote, as against 92 percent for the population at large. Forty percent of young people are not registered, against eight percent of the general populace.

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p29.

Demos claimed in 1995 that:

Under-25s are four times less likely to be registered to vote than any other group; and that one in five 21-24 year olds is not registered to vote.

Source: Freedom’s Children: Work, Relationships and Politics for 18-34 Year Olds in Britain Today, by H Wilkinson and G Mulgan, Demos, 1995, pp17-18.

d) Young people are less likely to vote than any other age group.

British Social Attitudes – the 16th report (1999) gave the following breakdown by age of the turnout figures for the 1997 general election:

Source: British Social Attitudes – the 16th report: ‘Who shares New Labour values?’, Edited by R Jowell et al, National Centre for Social Research, 1999. Chapter 2, ‘Young people and political apathy’, by Alison Park, p35.

The Adam Smith Institute claimed in 2000 that:

The young have only one quarter of the voting power of the over-55s, who are twice as many and twice as likely to vote

Only 33 percent of the 18-24 age group say they vote in local elections

For 16-24 year olds polled in 1999, compared to their 1972 equivalents, fewer have voted in an election, fewer have urged non-family members to vote, and fewer have taken an active part in a political campaign.

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p29.

A MORI poll for Rock The Vote, in January 1997, found that:

In the European Parliamentary election of 1994, only 11 percent of 18-24 year olds used their vote, compared to 21 percent of 25-34 year olds, and 33 percent of those aged over 35 years.

Source: ‘Young people and citizenship’, Black Information Link (Blink)

2) Attitudes to voting

Young people are less likely than any other age group to see voting as important, to think that voting makes a difference, or to believe that they have a duty to vote.

a) More young people than any other age group think that voting is not really important.

British Social Attitudes – the 16th report (1999) found the following positive responses to the statement ‘It’s not really worth voting’:

Source: British Social Attitudes – the 16th report: ‘Who shares New Labour values?’, edited by R Jowell et al, National Centre for Social Research 1999. Chapter 2, ‘Young people and political apathy’, by Alison Park, p35.

The Adam Smith Institute in 2000 found that nearly twice as many young people (11 percent) as their elders (six percent) say voting is not important.

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p29.

b) Young people have less of a sense that they have a duty to vote than any other age group.

British Social Attitudes – the 16th report (1999) found the following attitudes to voting:

Source: British Social Attitudes – the 16th report: ‘Who shares New Labour values?’, edited by R Jowell et al, National Centre for Social Research 1999. Chapter 2, ‘Young people and political apathy’, by Alison Park, p35.

c) Young people are not sure that voting makes a difference.

The Adam Smith Institute in 2000 found that:

15 percent of young people say their vote would make no difference (versus 10 percent overall). Thirteen percent of them say that none of the parties stands for policies they wish to see (versus seven percent overall).

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p30.

d) Making voting more convenient would not necessarily make young people vote…

The Adam Smith Institute in 2000 found that:

Only six percent of young people say they do not vote because it is inconvenient to do so.

A majority of young people profess themselves no more likely to vote if:

– voting were switched from Thursday to Sunday

– voting by post were allowed

– they could vote on a Saturday

– the polls were open 24 hours

– they could vote from home or work by digital TV or the internet

– or they could vote at a train station.

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p30.

e) …but it might do.

The Adam Smith Institute in 2000 found that:

Nearly half of young people say they would be more likely to vote if they could do so at a shopping centre (46 percent yes, 46 percent no).

A majority of young people say they would be more likely to vote if they could do it over the telephone (49 percent to 39 percent) or if polling were spread over more than one day (53 percent to 39 percent).

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p30.

3) Interest in, and knowledge about, politics.

Young people are less interested in, and knowledgeable about, politics than other age groups, and than previous generations of young people.

a) Young people express less interest in politics than any other age group, and than previous generations of young people.

British Social Attitudes – the 16th report (1999) found the following levels of interest in politics:

Source: British Social Attitudes – the 16th report: ‘Who shares New Labour values?’, edited by R Jowell et al, National Centre for Social Research 1999. Chapter 2, ‘Young people and political apathy’, by Alison Park, p24-25.

The Adam Smith Institute in 2000 found that:

Over half of the 15-24 age group say they are ‘not interested in politics’.

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p30.

A ‘Youth in Politics’ report for BBC Research, by NOP in June 1995, found the following attitudes to politics:

Young people were asked which of the following viewpoints came closest to the way they
thought about politics:

The respondents were asked how interested they were in politics generally:

Source: ‘Young people and citizenship’, Black Information Link (Blink)

b) Young people know less about politics than any other age group.

The Adam Smith Institute in 2000 found the following:

Asked if they know a great deal or a fair amount about their rights, only 35 percent of young people say yes, as against 50 percent of the general population. Asked about their responsibilities, 47 percent say yes, versus 64 percent of people as a whole;

88 percent of young people know little or nothing about proportional representation, including 30 percent who say they have never heard of it.

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p30.

A survey for the British Youth Council in 1998 asked 16-24 year olds to name prominent politicians:

Source: State of the Young Nation 1998, British Youth Council 1998, p7.

4) Views about politicians and citizenship.

Young people do not respect politicians, and have no strong views about broader questions of citizenship.

a) Young people trust politicians more than older people do, but respect them less:

British Social Attitudes – the 16th report (1999) found the following attitudes to politicians:

Trust in politicians to ‘tell the truth when they are in a tight corner’.

Source: British Social Attitudes – the 16th report: ‘Who shares New Labour values?’, edited by R Jowell et al, National Centre for Social Research 1999. Chapter 2, ‘Young people and political apathy’, by Alison Park, p33.

A survey of 16-24 year olds for the British Youth Council in 1998 asked:

Which types of people do you most respect?

Source: State of the Young Nation 1998, British Youth Council 1998, p6.

b) Young people do not have strong views regarding broader questions of citizenship.

The Adam Smith Institute in 2000 found that:

Young people think being a good citizen involves respecting others (60 percent), obeying the law (56 percent), looking after the environment (50 percent) and setting a good example (50 percent). They do not think it means volunteering to do things (only 15 percent), challenging the law if they think it is wrong (19 percent), or being active in the community (24 percent).

93 percent of young people think they are good citizens, as against 96 percent of their elders. Only 60 percent of them think that other people are good citizens, as against 67 percent of the general population.

Source: The Big Turn-Off: Attitudes of Young People to Government, Citizenship and Community, by M Pirie and R Worcester, Adam Smith Institute, 2000, p31.

A survey of 16-24 year olds for the British Youth Council in 1998 asked:

To what extent do you support the following?

Source: State of the Young Nation 1998, British Youth Council 1998, p9.

5) ‘New politics’

Whatever is said about the May Day protesters, the ‘new politics’ of direct action and volunteering does not engage many young people, and the ‘new’ political issues inspire a fairly weak conviction.

a) Young people seem to be no more excited by the ‘new’ politics of direct action and volunteering than they are by traditional politics.

A survey of 16-24 year olds for the British Youth Council in 1998 asked:

Which of the following have you done in the last 12 months?

Source: State of the Young Nation 1998, British Youth Council 1998, p9.

A ‘Youth in Politics’ report for BBC Research, by NOP in June 1995, found that ‘individual issues tended to stir young people more, rather than getting involved in politics generally’.

The following said they support:

Thirty-two percent have protested and 13 percent would support damage in support of the cause of animal rights – well above figures for other issues

Source: ‘Young people and citizenship’, Black Information Link (Blink)

The British Youth Council in 1998 reported that:

A survey by the Institute for Volunteering Research in 1997 found that the number of young people volunteering in the UK has fallen from 55 percent of 18-24 year olds in 1991 to 43 percent in 1997

This mirrors the pattern of volunteering in the population as a whole: a drop from 49 percent of the British population in 1991 to 46 percent in 1997

The number of hours young people volunteer has also dropped, from an average of 2.7 hours per week in 1991 to 0.7 in 1997

The average proportion of 18-24 year olds giving to charity rose from 75 percent in 1992 to 80 percent in 1994, but fell back to 62 percent in 1997.

Source: Youth Update – Citizenship, British Youth Council August 1998, p5.

Read on:

Election 2001 and the Grey Vote: It’s the numbers, stupid, by Jennie Bristow

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