Young people have turned on Nick Clegg. Photo: Flickr/Jason
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Why young people could be even easier to ignore at the next election

The political generation gap could widen as a new voter registration system could stop students voting.

Swathes of young people are giving up on democracy. They think that all politicians are oblivious to the challenges of the young. Twice in the past ten years, governing parties have broken their election promises to introduce tuition fees, as Labour did in 2004, and then abolish them, as the Liberal Democrats did when they agreed to treble fees in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

In 2010, just 51.8 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted, compared with 74.7 per cent of those aged 65 and older. For politicians, this creates a crude electoral logic to prioritise the interests of the elderly over the young.

The young could be even easier to ignore at the next election. Britain’s ageing population is giving grandparents further electoral clout at the expense of their grandchildren. A technical change in the voter registration process could depress turnout among the young further.

The next election will be the first time that the system of Individual Electoral Registration (IES), whereby voters have to register individually rather than by household, is used. The system was advocated by the Electoral Commission as far back as 2003 and, because it is considered to be a safeguard against fraud, is supported by all three main parties.

But the fear is it will lead to many young people, especially students, not being registered to vote. When Northern Ireland switched to IES in 2002, students were disproportionately affected by the transition. Students can no longer be registered en masse in halls of residence, and, because many move accommodation from year to year, it will stretch Electoral Registration Officers to trace them.

In 2010, an estimated 22 per cent of the student population was not registered to vote. The switch to IES risks making the figure significantly larger next May. “It is plausible that somewhere around half of all students might not be registered, at least in their place of study,” says Nick Hillman, who has co-authored a new report on the electoral power of the student population.

Young people not voting next May will not only reduce their electoral power in the 2015 general election, but for decades after. This is because, as the IPPR’s report on political inequality between generations last year noted, there is a ‘cohort effect’ in voting habits. Turnout among those born in the 1970s and 1980s is lower than older generations and remains comparatively lower as they get older. So not voting in one election makes someone significantly less likely to vote next time. And increasingly young people see no point in voting. In 1992, over 65s were 12 per cent more likely to vote than those under 25. In 2010, the gap was 23 per cent – and it would have been even greater had 18-24-year-olds not been enthused by the Lib Dems’ pledge to abolish tuition fees.

The generation gap could be even larger next May. Caroline Lucas, who is among the MPs most dependent on the student vote, says that she is “deeply concerned” that the introduction of IES “will mean that a lot of students still won’t be thinking about getting registered.” Universities have been lax in following the approach of Sheffield University. It has liaised with Sheffield City Council to give new students the opportunity to be included on the electoral register when they register at university. But as the university year has already begun, the best chance of increasing student registration now rests with city councils, electoral registration offices and universities themselves.

The risk is profound. On 7 May next year, thousands of students will go to polling booths and find that they are disenfranchised. Nothing would send a worse message to the young about how much they are valued.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.