The Unequal Distribution of Austerity

26/02/2015 17:37 GMT | Updated 28/04/2015 10:59 BST

'No country for young men'; this is not the title of the latest Coen Brothers film but, as a headline from this week's FTmade clear, it is increasingly the script the Conservative party is using in its audition for a second term, with recent policy announcements designed to woo older voters at the expense of the young. Nor is intergenerational inequality in public spending and political decision-making a new phenomenon.

The IFS's authoritative analysis of the UK's social security budget shows that spending on pensioners is actually expected to be 6.2% higher in real terms in 2015-16 than it was in 2010-11, while non-pensioner spending is expected to be 6.5% lower. Similarly, IPPR's own analysis of the 2010 Spending Review, one of the most significant fiscal documents of this Parliament, suggested the 16-24-year-old group have faced cuts to services worth an estimated 27.5% of their annual household income, while no other age-group faces average cuts worth more than 16% of their income.

The unequal distribution of austerity is rooted in political inequality, where despite a formally equal democracy some groups or individuals have greater influence over government decision-making. In particular, it reflects ingrained - and growing - levels of turnout inequality in the UK. For the turnout gap between 18-24-year-olds and those aged over 65 more than doubled between 1970 and 2005, from an 18 point gap to over 40 point gap. While it narrowed to a 32 point difference in 2010, current predictions suggest only 37% of 18-24 year old voters stated they were certain to vote at the next general election, compared to 70% of 65+ year old voters. Democracy on current trends risks becoming a quasi-gerontocracy.

This is particularly dangerous for the legitimacy of our democracy for the skewing of policy creates a cycle of disaffection and disengagement among the politically marginalised, as their views and interests are systematically excluded from debate. A cycle of fatalistic withdrawal sets in, widening and hardening the gap between voting and non-voting citizens, and encouraging political parties to cater to the interests of voters, with policies generally assisting the older and the better off at the expense of the young and the poor. At that rate, we can expect many more Coen-esque sequels.

Only radical institutional intervention can reverse this cycle; tinkering around the edges won't suffice as a strategy to revive the vibrancy of our democracy. IPPR has consequently recommended introducing compulsory first time voting, alongside an option to vote for 'none of the above'.

Why first-time compulsory voting then? Firstly, evidence suggests voting is habitual; if you vote in the first election for which you are eligible then you are far more likely to vote in subsequent elections.

Second, first-time compulsory voting is deliberately targeted at improving the representation of young people, where levels of turnout inequality are highest across all democracies. It strikes directly at political inequality. For example, turnout in Australia where voting is compulsory has averaged 95% in the 24 elections since 1946, and avoids the unequal participation rates that skew British democracy.

Third, and perhaps most important, if politicians realised that young people would be voting in larger numbers then they could not afford, as is often the case now, to ignore their concerns and interests in favour of those of groups that already vote in large numbers. Critics of compulsory voting often fail to acknowledge how this element of compulsion - forcing politicians to engage with voters - could help to address underlying causes of political disaffection, not just their symptoms.

Of course, compulsory first time voting is not a panacea. We should also experiment with democratic institutions and practices that are more participatory, deliberative and powerful, that can better disperse and democratise political power, both within but also beyond the channels of representative democracy. Nonetheless, as a first step towards rebalancing our democracy - and beyond that, our society - it is vitally necessary