Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
25 September 2014updated 27 Jun 2021 3:34am

Why it’s imperative that young people don’t take democracy for granted

Sky News political correspondent Sophy Ridge on the insidious impact on democracy of young people switching off from the voting process.

By Sophy Ridge

There is one unassailable agreement in British politics: democracy is king. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” But can you truly have government by “the whole population” if one particular demographic opts out?

The brutal truth is that thousands of young people are simply switching off from the voting process. Don’t just take it from me, look at the numbers. Back in 1964 – just 50 years ago – 76.4 per cent of the under 25s voted. Fast-forward to the last general election, in 2010, and that number had fallen to just 44 per cent according to Ipsos Mori. When it comes to young women, the figure was a (particularly depressing) 39 per cent.

Some people would argue that if young people are more interested in Buzzfeed and Bake Off than the ballot box, that’s their choice. But that choice has big consequences. Just imagine how different the government would look if it was elected by the whole population (like in the dictionary definition of democracy) rather than a self-selecting segment weighted towards the old.

There would be more Labour MPs, for a start. In the 2010 general election, for instance, 31 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted for Labour, compared to 30 per cent who voted Conservative. When it comes to the over-65s, a whopping 64 per cent voted Conservative compared to just 31 per cent voting for Labour. David Cameron’s party ended up with more MPs – but would it have been different if more young people had turned up to the ballot box?

Needless to say, having more or fewer politicians of a certain colour isn’t just a cosmetic difference – it will have a direct impact on policies.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

But there will be another, more insidious, impact on policy if young people don’t exercise their democratic right – and it makes no difference which party is in power. If you don’t vote, politicians care about you a little less. 

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

Some argue MPs have a duty to look after all of their constituents equally – no matter whether they vote or not. Those same people might also spend their time campaigning for world peace and the existence of unicorns. If you were an MP fighting a close battle in a marginal constituency, determined to get elected, which types of voter would you reach out for? The young girl who has a roughly one in three chance of voting? Or the older woman who is almost certain to turn up to the ballot box? It’s not difficult to see the impact of this in policy terms.

Is it any wonder that the coalition government has vowed to protect pensioner benefits (from free bus passes to TV licenses) when every other age group has shouldered cuts? Or that the Conservatives are actively considering ending housing benefits for the under 25s?

Would it have been less easy for the Lib Dems to ignore the thousands of students who protested over tuition fees if every one of them was prepared to get their message across through the ballot box, rather than on the street? One senior Tory confided to me, with a sigh, that colleagues were more concerned with older constituents because “young people are less likely to vote – and if they do vote, they tend to vote Labour.”

In my view, it’s imperative that young people don’t take democracy for granted. That’s why Sky News has launched a new campaign Stand Up Be Counted. It’s a dynamic digital platform designed to amplify the voices of young people before the general election. The idea is for 16 to 25-year-olds to post videos, comments and articles on the issues affecting them and share them across social media and into our news coverage. Already we’ve seen some great examples of this new collaboration – see “Thinspiration” Fears Over Eating Disorder Rise.

If you are a young person who thinks politicians should pay equal attention to people whether they are 20 or 60, get involved at or on social media by looking for @SkySUBC.

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent at Sky News