In this local election 4,200 seats are up for grabs, including all London boroughs, all 36 metropolitan boroughs, 74 second tier district authorities, 20 unitary authorities and various mayoral posts. The expectation has been that Labour would gain about 500 seats and the Conservatives may lose 200 seats, but with turnout set to be 36% how do we encourage more people, especially the young to vote in local elections?
The Fabian Society presented a series of essays about disengagement with the political process, and noted that only 14% of those aged 18 to 24 voted in 2010 while only a third of 16 to 24 year olds say they have an interest in politics. The essays found that change must be rooted in what citizens feel is wrong, not politicians. Change depends on politicians working much harder to engage with the people they wish to serve, and this engagement must be at a local level before they feel they have a stake nationally.
Further work by the Local Government Group found that despite high turnout in youth elections the young are not engaged in party politics, rather they are motivated by issues. In mainstream elections voters are asked to vote on party policies which are not as easily communicated in terms direct impacts and issues. Young people were found to see the three main parties acting as if they would ‘do anything to win votes’. One study found 11 to 18 year olds who were surveyed said it was ‘unimportant to them who won the next general election’. So the young voter is becoming disengaged at the outset, the current system fails to communicate issues in a way they can engage in.
But it’s not just who we are voting for that matters, a case study carried out in Brent found that just the fact that we have to get to a polling station can influence turnout. The study found re-siting the polling place could improve turnout probability by up to 5%, and when turn out averages are in the low 30% this can have a huge impact. In youth elections voting takes place at local schools which encourages participation.
Other issues highlighted by the Local Government Group found that not all young people knew how to vote and this was a huge barrier, with one in five saying they wouldn’t vote because of this. Presumably this carries on until they are shown how to. Also just 44% of 17 to 24 year olds are on the electoral register, compared with over 80% of those over 35, although there may be other drivers at work here as we get older.
The popularity of an issue-based party such as UKIP reflects the growing willingness to vote for parties other than the main three. It reflects that they are tapping into the issues the electorate understand and that they can form an opinion on. It may be that rather than dismiss it the three main parties need to look at the success of UKIP for how to engage.
Articles referred to in this post (please note you may need to login to view some of them)
New Local Government Network ‘The next generation: the values, attitudes and behaviours of Britain’s future citizens’