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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.