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

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

***

It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

***

It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

***

Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.