Why do so many people not vote?

If they use their voices on 7 May, these voters, once considered “lost”, could decide the outcome of this bitterly fought election.


Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The crude nature of this coalition’s relentless pursuit of the so-called “grey vote” (pensioners) has sent a message to the British public: those who cast their vote are rewarded. Those who don’t – the “lost voters” – pay the price.

In 2010, 76 per cent of all pensioners in the UK turned out at the ballot box, compared to 65 per cent of the electorate overall and just 44 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds. While the Tories have showered the grey vote with electoral treasures in an attempt to woo them, tuition fees have been trebled and the Education Maintenance Allowance, a scheme that once acted as a safety net for students from lower-income backgrounds, has been abolished.

In January, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, lashed out at Nick Clegg for delivering the “final insult” to young people. Miliband claimed that following changes to the electoral system (the switch from household to individual voter registration) one million people have fallen off the voters’ register in the past year. This has disproportionately affected young people and students living in halls of residence. The Electoral Commission confirms this, and says there was a reduction of approximately 920,000 – or 2 per cent – in entries on the register in December 2014 compared with earlier that year.

The loss of these young voters will have huge implications for 7 May. Not only will they find themselves unable to vote, but the left-leaning political parties will be heavily bruised. The so-called Green Surge wouldn’t have been possible without flourishing support from younger voters. With Green funds and efforts concentrated largely in university towns in seats such as Bristol West and Norwich South, it is likely that the loss of voters will produce an anticlimactic end to the party’s 2015 campaign.

But the young are not the only under-represented group: women are, too. The House of Commons Library says that more than nine million women did not vote at the last election, compared to eight million men. At present, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) citizens are also less likely to be registered than the white British population (76 per cent against 86 per cent). The BAME vote could determine the outcome of the election in 168 marginal seats where the numbers of ethnic-minority voters are larger than the majorities by which those seats were won in 2010.

Labour has pursued a risky policy of using one of its pledges to target young voters, promising to cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 – reminding students of the Lib Dem U-turn on this. And there are other efforts to rediscover lost voters: Bite the Ballot recently spearheaded a campaign to attract young voters to the polling stations, and the Fawcett Society and Operation Black Vote are doing similar things with women and BAME groups. If they use their voices on 7 May, these voters, once considered “lost”, could decide the outcome of this bitterly fought election.

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn



This article appears in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special