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1 December 2014

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.

By Tim Wigmore

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.

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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.