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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Owen Smith interview: “I’m pretty red”

The Labour leadership challenger is struggling to win over a left suspicious of his past. 

The south Wales valleys embody the history of the labour movement: its victories, its defeats, its heroes, its villains. It was this resonant location that Owen Smith chose for his speech on the morning of 22 August. Labour Party members had that day begun voting on whether the 46-year-old Pontypridd MP should replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

“Our history, our party was literally hewed from the hillsides around where we sit today,” Smith told a small audience at the Ely Valley Miners Welfare Club in Tonyrefail, a short distance from his home. The Welshman cited the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, which ruled that trade unions could be sued for losses caused by industrial action. It was this decision that spurred on the establishment of a Labour Party in parliament to repeal the law (as it would do in 1906 in alliance with the Liberal government).

Smith spoke later of marching with miners from the Maerdy Colliery as a 14-year-old, on the day they returned to work at the end of the 1984-85 strike. “I saw that they were utterly unbowed,” he recalled. “But they were ultimately defeated.”

Such moments, he concluded, proved the need for Labour to win power and to maintain “a powerful voice in parliament” – something he believes Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of providing. On 28 June, less than a year after Corbyn’s landslide victory, 172 MPs (81 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party) endorsed a no-confidence motion in him. Sixty-five shadow ministers, including Smith (who was then the shadow work and pensions secretary), resigned from the front bench.

Yet though Smith enjoys the overwhelming backing of the PLP, few believe he will prevail among members. He achieved only 53 constituency nominations, against the leader’s 285. On social media, where internal party contests are increasingly decided, Smith’s reach is minuscule compared to that of Corbyn (who has 795,000 Facebook fans to his 14,000).

The day before Smith spoke in south Wales, he won the endorsement of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and Labour’s most senior elected politician. He was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband have trumpeted his cause. Yet Smith-supporting MPs fear that such declarations count for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

Corbyn’s allies and foes alike are already preparing for the aftermath of the leader’s anticipated victory. The former warn that rebel MPs put themselves at risk of deselection by members. In response, some have threatened privately to form a parliamentary breakaway group and bid for the status of the official opposition.

Smith, unsurprisingly, insists that he can win. “I think the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] nominations don’t truly reflect the views in CLPs,” he told me when we spoke after his 20-minute address. The challenger, dressed in his favoured combination of dark suit and open-necked white shirt, welcomed the black coffee proffered by his aide. “They reflect the fact that some of the people who are new members and are supportive of Jeremy were very organised . . .

“Anybody who knows the Labour Party knows that selections are very often won by the sleepers: the people who don’t go to CLP meetings and don’t necessarily shout from the rooftops.” Smith’s hopes rest on those who share Oscar Wilde’s view: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many spare evenings.”

Cartoon: George Leigh

Smith first publicly revealed his leadership ambitions in an interview with me back in January. “It would be an incredible honour and privilege,” he said. I wrote then of a widespread view among Labour MPs that the next leader “will at least need to be from the party’s soft left to be acceptable to the party membership”. When the rebellion against Corbyn came, it was this consideration that proved decisive. Smith was embraced as a Miliband-esque socialist and a parliamentary “clean skin”, untainted by the New Labour years, having been elected in 2010. By contrast, his initial rival, Angela Eagle, had been an MP since 1992 and voted for the Iraq War.

However, Smith proved to have a more ambiguous past than some of his backers anticipated. Corbyn’s supporters swiftly unearthed a series of interviews from 2006 in which their opponent made a notably centrist pitch. Smith, then a by-election candidate in Blaenau Gwent, south Wales, defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq War), supported private-sector involvement in the National Health Service and praised city academies. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online.

Since then, he has struggled to reconcile these positions with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent.

“To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing’,” Smith told me. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be. My views haven’t really changed at all, I’m someone who has been on the left of the party.

“My dad [the Welsh historian Dai Smith] is someone who’s been on the left of the Labour movement all his life. I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

Yet a former shadow cabinet colleague told me that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings: “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

What Smith believes in most, some say, is himself. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described him as “one of the most ambitious career politicians I’ve met”. Others have dismissed him as a “Big Pharma lobbyist” because of his past as head of policy and government relations for Pfizer.

“I’m not ashamed that I had a life outside politics before I became an MP,” Smith told me. “Yes, I worked for Pfizer and I also worked as a BBC journalist and as an adviser to the last Labour government on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t want career politicians – they want men and women who have had experience of working in business and in the different sectors that make up our economy. Critics may use it against me, but my time in business has helped me understand what’s wrong with it and how we can make it work better.”

Corbyn’s supporters, however, allege that Smith’s left-wing pledges would not withstand contact with centrist colleagues. The degree to which the challenger has rebutted this charge shows that he recognises its potency.

He has offered to make Corbyn party president or chair if he wins, to allow Corbyn to act as “a guardian of Labour’s values”. In his speech, Smith vowed to increase member influence by making conference votes binding on the leadership.

Throughout the 1980s, another soft-left Welshman, Neil Kinnock, struggled to assert authority as the hard left retained control of vital bodies. Smith’s proposals risk replicating this conflict. But he told me that he would respect Labour’s conference even if it endorsed stances such as Trident abolition (Smith joined CND as a teenager but later renounced unilateralism). “I do think in order to reassure members that, under my leadership, we would listen hard to them and act in accordance with their views, conference does need to become sovereign once more,” he said.

Tony Benn’s dream of internal democracy appeared to be within reach. I asked Smith whether he would support other reforms such as a reduced MP nomination threshold for leadership candidates (Corbyn allies have proposed a cut from 15 per cent to 5 per cent). “All of these things can be debated,” he told me. “I’m not sure it should be 5 per cent: I need to look at it when we get closer to it. But I am convinced that the left needs to be able to put up candidates in this contest, I’ve always felt that.”

Smith’s assertion is contradicted by a colleague who described him as having been “furious”, “apoplectic” when Corbyn made the ballot last year (he supported Andy Burnham’s campaign).

                                                                                                                                                         ***

Smith is less equiovcal over the mandatory reselection of MPs. “That would be a really retrograde step for the party,” he told me. “It would be an uncomradely way for us to do business.” He is critical of the Corbyn-aligned group Momentum, some of whose members are spearheading deselection efforts. “I fear an attitude within Momentum that they are a separate organisation and they shouldn’t be,” he told me. “It’s hard to argue that they’re loyal and supportive if they’re organising a bloomin’ great really in the same town at the same time in competition to the Labour Party” (the group will hold its own four-day conference alongside Labour’s in Liverpool).

Some of those close to Corbyn, such as John McDonnell, have unhesitatingly described themselves as Marxists (in 2006, the shadow chancellor named Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences). I asked Smith whether he believed Labour could encompass such views. “Yes, I think we’ve always been a broad church and there have always been people who’ve come from that tradition,” he replied. “There are two broad traditions: the extra-parliamentary tradition, that has always seen parliament as a compromise and parliamentary socialism as a compromise, from [the trade unionist and theorist] Noah Ablett here in south Wales with The Miners’ Next Step through to Ed Miliband’s dad [Ralph, a Marxist historian] ... and the mainstream social democratic tradition that I came from.”

He added: “We’ve had this battle in the Labour Party over the ages, haven’t we? Except now I think it’s more serious because there is a very real danger, with Labour at such a low ebb and politics fragmented more broadly, and so many more parties and so many options for people and such a lesser tribal attachment to the Labour Party, that we can’t afford those fractures.

"If we splinter, there’s lot of other places for people to put their vote.”

                                                                                                                                                        ***

Though they will not say so publicly, some of Smith’s supporters believe Labour would remain unelectable under his leadership. A former shadow cabinet minister told me that he was offering a “warmed-up Ed Milibandism, which was rejected by the voters”. Smith naturally contests this analysis. “I don’t think that we lost the last election because we were too left-wing,” he said. “The proof is that the Tories have engaged in all sorts of these policies ... Theresa May’s opening speech upon becoming leader was to talk about social injustice, economic insecurity, lack of security in the workplace. Labour values, Labour words in a Tory mouth, evidence that the broad story we’re telling about Britain is right.”

Smith said that, unlike Corbyn, he would resign if he became leader and lost a confidence vote by MPs. “Yes - I would [resign]. We are a party that believes in parliamentary democracy and, as such, it is only right that the leader commands the support of his or her colleagues in the Commons.”

Should Corbyn win the contest, as expected, Smith will not return to the shadow cabinet but act as “a loyal backbencher”.  He pledges to resist any breakaway: “I'm Labour, I've always been Labour and I will never stop being Labour," he said. 

Speaking of his fear that Corbyn would seek to remain leader even if the party lost the next general election, he said: “I’m deeply worried about it. I think he’s determined to hang on come hell or high water. And what does that say about him? ... I think he is more concerned with his version of the Labour Party being sustained and being victorious than he is with the Labour Party being victorious in elections. I think he is actually prepared to sacrifice unity and victory - two great words that have traditionally been emblazoned on Labour banners through the ages - in order to secure control of the party.”

The trouble for Owen Smith is that, for all his combative talk and appeal to the left, he is trapped between his past pragmatism and his present radicalism. 

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s late mentor, divided politicians into “signposts” and “weathercocks”: those who shape opinion and those who are shaped by it. He would have branded Smith a “weathercock”. Even if he wins, Smith risks being remembered not as a politician who resolved his party’s contradictions, but as one who embodied them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser