29/06/2016 12:50 BST | Updated 30/06/2017 06:12 BST

It's Not All About EU: Why We Need to Make Voting More Attractive to Young People


While the result of the EU referendum may have been a surprise to some, low turnout by young people was sadly all too predictable. With estimates putting turnout at just 36% amongst 18-24 year olds (compared with an overall turnout of 72%) the majority of young people clearly couldn't see the appeal of the ballot box.

Although the pollsters have come in for criticism for some of their predictions, the low turnout of young people is one thing they got absolutely right.

Just two months ago the Hansard Society published its annual Audit of Political Engagement, drawing on IPSOS Mori research in December 2015, which found that just 37% of 18-24 year olds said they were certain to vote in the EU referendum, compared with 76% of those aged over 65

Most worryingly, this democratic disengagement isn't just about Europe, but reflects a longer-term trend. While for many years young people have been the least likely group to vote at elections, this has accelerated in the 21st century. As researchers from Exeter University have reported there was an estimated 18-24 turnout of 44% in 2010, 37% in 2005 and 39% in 2001. In contrast, turnout amongst this age group was a reported 68% in 1997, 61% in 1992 and 66% in 1987

If you look beyond the statistics and listen to young people, there is disillusionment with the political process as well as apathy. This was very evident when Young Women's Trust recently worked with Future Molds Communities to bring the voices of disaffected young women to politicians.

At the ballot box the divide between the young and the old has never been greater, and not only when it comes to turnout. However, there is no excuse for those such as the Guardian's Stephen Moss, who tweeted that "Over 70s shouldn't have been allowed to vote in the referendum. It's nothing to do with them. The decision moulds the future of the country." This argument demeans democracy.

If we are serious about not losing a generation to electoral disaffection or apathy, then politics needs to change and how we vote needs to be transformed. Options such as digital voting and even compulsory voting should at least be considered, as should making learning about politics and voting in schools compulsory. There's also an urgent need to examine electoral registration arrangements.

Crucially, politicians of all parties also need to look at whether they are focusing on the issues that matter to young people and then addressing these.

It's easy to forget that universal suffrage in the UK is still relatively recent: over 18s only got the vote in 1969 and it wasn't until 1928 that women aged over 21 could vote on the same basis as men. Poorer people were also later getting the vote than those with wealth. Perhaps there is a continuing legacy from these historic inequalities, given that young people are less likely to vote than older people, people from lower socio-economic groups don't vote in the numbers that others do and women are now less likely to vote than men. If so, then the scale of the challenge runs much deeper than just how young people are engaged with in elections, and reflects the value as a society that is still put on different groups.

There are however grounds for optimism. What goes down should also be able to go up, and it's not too long ago that younger people's turnout was so much higher than now. But the longer that disengagement goes on, the harder it's likely to be to reverse, and reversing it also means understanding why this is happening in many other countries and where progress is being made.

Whilst there will now be an understandable political focus on dealing with the many implications of the EU referendum result, politicians can't afford to press snooze on this latest wake-up call on young people's political disengagement - not least as there's every chance of a general election later this year.

And for those people, young or old, who persist in saying that voting doesn't change anything surely that isn't the case. Just take a look at the events of last week and the fact that if voting didn't matter, there wouldn't have been so much previous opposition to giving young people, women and poor people the vote in the UK, or so much continuing opposition to democracy in many parts of the world.