Greater Manchester local elections 2012: Why are so many young people not voting?

By Helen Le Caplain

I’m resigned to people not being bothered about politics, either thinking it doesn’t apply to them, or is a waste of their time.

But I was taken aback when I spoke to a group of sixth-form college students and heard many of them voice their hatred of a system which they believe has failed them.

Tuition fees, the expenses scandal and budget cuts were hotly-debated topics, however when I asked whether any of them would vote in the next elections the majority said they wouldn’t.

This disengagement with the political process seems at odds with their obvious interest in political issues. So why are so many young people not voting?

Evidence suggests that turnout among young people is a bigger problem now more than ever.

Young people are portrayed in the press as politically ignorant and apathetic, and statistics compiled by the political research and education charity The Hansard Society have done little to quash that stereotype.

Hansard’s Audit of Political Engagement 8 revealed that 60% of 18-34 year olds feel they know ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about politics.

And when asked about their previous voting habits their results illustrated that this age group is the least likely to vote, with just 39% turning out at the local council elections in 2011.

Professor Andrew Russell is a University of Manchester politics lecturer who specialises in electoral engagement, particularly among young people.

He said that a willingness to vote is weaker among those under thirty than in other sections of society, particularly among first-time voters and those eligible to vote for the second and third time. 

Professor Russell said: “Older people tend to feel a sense of civic duty in voting due to knowing someone, either parents or grandparents, who were in the war and can share in that post-war experience.

“The further away you go from that, the less likely people are to remember this communal experience or vote.”

However he noted that the logistics of voting could affect turnout even among those young people who are interesting in politics.

He said: “Young people are particularly unlikely to vote or abstain most because they are hard to track down.

“They are the most likely to be living in temporary accommodation and physically not present at the address they are registered at.

“Quite a few will be students and they might not have a view who should be elected as they come from outside the area.”

Regardless of the reasons why people choose not to vote, Professor Russell voiced concern about regularly choosing not to vote.

He said: “Voting is a habit and if you never acquire that habit, you might find it hard to catch-up.”

David Corless, 25, a hospitality manager from Manchester City Centre said he has never voted, and doesn’t intend to this time.

He said: “I will not be voting in this year’s council election, due to the disgrace this government is bringing to the country.

“I mean VAT on a pie from the bakery, that’s a joke. We have to scrimp and scrape all year to survive, while the fat cats get the best of everything.”

“What do we normal people gain?  Nothing ever changes, if you aren’t in the Houses of Parliament then you aren’t worth a carrot.”

Martin Jameson, 19, said he was wary of most politicians: “I don’t trust any of them. They don’t deserve my vote.”

However there are young people who do not share David and Martin’s pessimism.

Shop worker Stephanie Smith, 24, said that although she understands her vote may not be for the winning party, she believes it is important to vote nonetheless.

She said: “I vote because I believe that even if the party I support doesn’t win, I have had my say.

“If decisions are made at either local or national level that I don’t agree with, I can legitimately voice my opposition.

“Those people who moan but who haven’t voted don’t have the right to complain, because when they had their chance to be counted they chose not to be.”

Other young people who agree in the importance of participating in the electoral process are members of the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP).

UKYP aims to give those aged 11-18 a political voice in the hope of bringing about social change.   

Sana Khan, Member of the UK Youth Parliament for the Borough of Rochdale, stressed that young people should participate in elections.

She said: “A vote is a powerful form of expression and power. We live in a country where every voice can be heard, whether one is old or young.

“I believe those who vote, ensure that in at least this one way, their voices are heard.

“Our government represents us a nation and if we, as UK citizens, fail to express our thoughts about who we want to represent our constituency or proposed changes to the law, then we will not be represented.

“If we don’t, perhaps people may stop asking. We need democracy in our country.”

Sarah Alvi, Deputy MYP for Trafford, emphasised the importance of shaping future legislation.

She said: “Young people should get involved in local democracy because not only is it important but it influences decisions that will directly affect us.

“Voting will give us a say in how the system works and how the world around us will look. Young people can’t let that opportunity slip, as the future generation it is our duty to make changes for the better.”

Who knows, perhaps young people will storm the ballot boxes at this year’s council elections and prove to be an electoral force to be reckoned with.

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