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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.