For the sake of democracy, we need to get the young voting again. Here's how

Votes at 16; students registered by and at their place of study; a polling booth in every school, college and university. All of these reforms would help instil the voting habit.

Back to Greece: the scope for direct democracy by Andrew Adonis and Demos’s first director Geoff Mulgan was one of the organisation’s first pamphlets on the political process itself. It diagnosed an ailing democracy. Twenty years later, the patient hasn’t recovered – perhaps because the original diagnosis was, in retrospect, fundamentally mistaken. Instead of idealistic new forms of participation, the priority should be practical reforms to strengthen the basic foundation of democracy: the mass franchise.

What was written back then is substantially true today:

Modern government is exclusive and elitist. It... encourages political elites to trade simplistic, cut-and-dried solutions to problems as the currency of electoral politics. Political alienation and ignorance are systemic. But neither feature is new to the 1980s or 1990s, however stark they seem today. They have gone hand-in-hand with representative government; only their form, and the capacity to do anything to overcome them, have changed over the decades

In key respects, the patient has deteriorated. Voter engagement has been far lower post-1994 than it was pre-1994. In the 14 UK general elections between 1945 and 1992, the average turnout was 77 per cent. In 2001, turnout dropped below 60 per cent for the first time and in 2010 was still below two-thirds of the electorate. In the 4 general elections between 1997 and 2010, turnout averaged 64 per cent.

This 13-point drop in turnout between 1992 and 2010 has not been uniformly distributed across the electorate. What is most striking are the huge increases in the turnout gaps between different demographic groups. For example, the gap between AB turnout (managers and professionals) and DE turnout (unskilled and manual workers) has increased from 6 points in 1992 to 19 points in 2010.

As for age, whilst the turnout among over 65s has dropped from 83 per cent to 76 per cent, among 18-24 year olds it has fallen from 63 per cent to just 44 per cent. The ‘age gap’ of 20 points has become a 32-point chasm and there seems no prospect of recovery in the near future. The Hansard Society reports that, in 2013, ‘just 12 per cent of 18-24 year olds now say they are certain to vote. This is a 10 percentage point fall in the last year, and a decline from the 30 per cent recorded in [2011].’ This compares with 59 per cent (down from 72 per cent two years ago) of over-55s reporting that they are certain to vote in a general election. No wonder cuts in pensioner benefits are off the table whilst young people are increasingly expected to pick up the tab.

Turnout in local elections, which has always been lower than in general elections, has also declined. Average turnout in the 1940s was 45 per cent. In the 1980s it was still above 40 per cent. In the 2000s it fell to 36 per cent and in 2012 it dropped below a third of the electorate to just 31 per cent. Young adults barely vote or engage in local politics and there are very few young councillors. In 2012, Leeds had more councillors over the age of 75 than under the age of 35.

Mistaken diagnosis

The 1994 Adonis/Mulgan diagnosis was partly rooted in rational choice theory. James Fishkin and Anthony Downs were cited for their work on the ‘rational ignorance’ of ordinary citizens. Voters have no reason to find out about issues if their opinion will never be asked for. Downs went as far as to say that it is largely irrational to vote at all given the high costs – registration, travel, time etc – and the low probability of one’s vote making a difference to the result.

Yet most of the adult population does vote in general elections. This is what Morris Fiorina called ‘the paradox that ate rational choice theory.’ As James Fowler puts it:

Unless we assume collateral benefits like the rewarding feeling of doing one’s civic duty, rational choice models yield predictions that are at odds with the reality that millions of people vote in large elections... [and] a substantial literature that indicates most people are habitual voters.

‘Back to Greece’ simply took it for granted that general election turnout in excess of 70 per cent would continue. Rather than tackle the fundamentals of voter engagement in existing national and local elections, the Adonis/Mulgan recommendations on ‘informed participation’ sought to move up the escalator of democratic participation. In retrospect this was overambitious.

There were three specific suggestions:

·         Voter Juries
‘These national juries – perhaps held once or twice a year – would examine issues of major public interest or controversy... Each jury would consist of about 20 randomly selected adults. Each would last for one week with the aim or reaching verdicts on specific questions raised by the issues under consideration. Their verdicts would have no constitutional force, although we would expect them – and summaries of their discussions – to attract wide public attention.’

·         Voter Vetoes
‘The Voter Veto would introduce the advisory referendum into Britain for use in the specific case of legislation passed by parliament, or a decision made by a local council. At national level, if 1m voters – more than 2 per cent of the electorate – signed a petition for a referendum to be called, a poll would be held on the issue on the local election day in May following, and the legislation – or decision – would not be implemented pending the result. The outcome of the referendums would be advisory; parliament and councils would be free to refuse to modify their earlier decisions in the face of an adverse referendum majority if they so resolved, provided they formally considered the result before so doing.’

·         Voter Feedback
‘Our third suggestion is to draw on the many experiences from around the world in using new electronic communications to engage citizens in decisions.’

It is obviously essential to deploy new social and communications media to the cause of politics and government. The proliferation of media and – crucially – user-generated content has revolutionised traditional media industries and (to a lesser extent) the ways in which the electorate participate in democratic debate. But the shortcomings of the other two recommendations are stark in hindsight.

The idea that a state-led television series called ‘Voter Juries’ would get more than a handful of viewers, and command any special legitimacy, is risible. As for referendums, if basic voter turnout in general and local elections is so low, it is hard to argue that the solution is yet more voting with ever diminishing turnout. Furthermore, the 2 per cent hurdle virtually guarantees that many referendum issues – national and local – would be of passionate concern to only a tiny minority of the electorate.

‘Back to Greece’ also recognised that ‘until cable and other technologies reach near-100 per cent penetration they will not be legitimate as voting mechanisms.’ Two decades on, they still haven’t. Even the greater use of postal voting has given rise to increased concern about fraud.

Vote early, vote often

The key imperative for democratic reformers should therefore be to reinvigorate the mass franchise and stimulate greater turnout in national and local elections. Without this representative democracy could start to lose its legitimacy. It is vital that voting starts young, both to represent the young and also to instil the ‘voting habit’.

There is a significant body of academic evidence to show that casting one’s ballot on election day is habitual. As Donald Green and Ron Shachar put it:

If two people whose psychological propensities to vote are identical should happen to make different choices about whether to go to the polls on election day, these behaviours will alter their likelihoods of voting in the next election. In other words, holding pre-existing individual and environmental attributes constant, merely going to the polls increases one’s chance of returning.

Another study by Kevin Denny and Orla Doyle, concludes that ‘voting in one election increases the probability of voting in a subsequent election by 13 per cent.’ This number is brought down from an astonishing 26 per cent on the basis that some of their sample will have established a habit before the start of their data set and that ‘it is critical that one allows for the fact that politicization starts before the voting age and has long-lasting consequences for political behaviour.’ This suggests that the earliest voting choices have the biggest impact.

First time voting by teenagers and young adults is clearly critical to habit formation thereafter. The question is how to get young people to vote in far larger numbers. A combination of citizenship education, a voting age reduced to 16, and locating the first vote in a young person’s school or college seem the most promising options.

Not ‘back to Greece’ but ‘back to the ballot box’

Eric Plutzer writes of the voting habit:

As young citizens confront their first election, all of the costs of voting are magnified: they have never gone through the process of registration, may not know the location of their polling place, and may not have yet developed an understanding of party differences and key issues. Moreover, their peer group consists almost entirely of other non-voters: their friends cannot assure them that voting has been easy, enjoyable, or satisfying. Young people also lack many of the resources that can promote participation. Because they have little disposable income, they are not attractive targets for parties seeking campaign contributions or for interest groups mounting direct mail campaigns. Few of them own homes, have stakes in community politics, or have completed college. Thus it is not surprising that... their turnout is relatively low.

Votes at 16; students registered by and at their place of study; a polling booth in every school, college and university; preparation for voting being a key part of citizenship education – these simple reforms address most of Plutzer’s points. If they were implemented, virtually all 16-18 year olds, and about half of all 18 to 22 year olds (i.e. those at university or full-time college), would be registered at their place of study and cast their first votes there. Voting en masse would reduce many of the psychological barriers for young people approaching their first vote. It would be a group activity for young people and an expectation within their educational institution. Citizenship education (introduced into English schools in 2002) would then lead naturally to voting; mock elections would lead to real elections, just as mock exams lead to real exams; and local candidates and parties would treat schools, and their voters, with a degree of attention and seriousness largely lacking at present.

These reforms should apply not only for national elections but also for local elections, where the issues (such as local transport and amenities) are of vital concern to young people. They would also encourage the political parties to recruit more young members, and to stand young candidates – including students – for council elections in particular.

Green and Shachar conclude that if you manage to ‘lure someone to the voting booth, and you will raise his or her propensity to vote in a future election.’ Better still, bring the voting booth to the voter.

As for citizenship education, developmental psychologist Judith Torney-Purta, states that:

Schools achieve the best results in fostering civic engagement when they rigorously teach civic content and skills, ensure an open classroom climate for discussing issues, emphasize the importance of the electoral process, and encourage a participative school culture.

What better way to achieve this than to do it for real, with a vote at the end of the process?

England’s elite have always understood the importance of starting young. When Old Etonian, Jesse Norman, was asked why David Cameron was surrounded in his government by so many other Old Etonians, he replied:

Other schools don't have the same commitment to public service. They do other things. It's one of the few schools where the pupils really do run vast chunks of the school themselves. So they don't defer in quite the same way, they do think there's the possibility of making change through their own actions... Things like rhetoric and poetry and public speaking and performance are incredibly important to young people succeeding in life.

Indeed so. The imperative is not ‘back to Greece’ but ‘back to the ballot box’.

This essay is taken from the new Demos collection Twenty Years of Ideas, launched to celebrate its 20th birthday

Andrew Adonis is former Secretary of State for Transport and Minister for Schools. He is the author of the recently published 5 Days In May: The Coalition and Beyond and Education, Education, Education

Adam Tyndall is a researcher for Andrew Adonis

A mock ballot box to encourage people to vote in the Bristol mayoral election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Adonis is shadow infrastructure minister and the former transport secretary

Adam Tyndall is the co-founder of the China-Britain Youth Association and the India-Britain Youth Association

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”