Making voting a habit for the next generation

Brett John calls for more radical action to encourage young people to vote and to engage with politics.

Imagine this. Its 2050. The Tories have won the election again with a mandate of 10% and Boris Johnson’s hologram has been elected Prime Minister of England and Wales. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is still enthusiastically persevering with the Labour leadership.

This scenario presents many interesting conundrums, but perhaps the scariest and the most realistic is how 10% of the electoral register thrusted a party into Government. This prospect of politicians being elected on minuscule mandates to deliver election promises that vast swathes of the public are not aware of already sounds very familiar today.

The issue of low turnouts should not be underestimated or ignored and calls for something to be done need to be more than merely warm but worthless words at the dispatch box. The system needs a radical change.

The turnout at the 2015 General Election was 66%. Or, as I prefer to put it, 34% of eligible voters didn’t vote. The chances are that for every 10 people you walk past on a street, 3 of them didn’t vote, right? Not quite – research suggests that whether they voted or not is hugely influenced by their age.

The older generation has helped shroud elections, disguising the reality of a population that places less value on voting than its predecessors by bumping up the turnout percentages. The avail of voting is not being socialised into the next generation.

But what happens when that famous thriving ‘grey vote’ become ‘underground agents’ and pass on? Well, it will take us even further along the path shaped as a downwards spiral. Destination: A broken democracy.

It is widely recognised that my generation views voting to be much less of a civic duty and more of a civic option. That premise should not just be subserviently accepted by politicians. After all, can we really call our country a ‘democracy’ when the beliefs of younger people are not understood or taken into account in shaping the future?

Politicians are often too quick to dismiss the absence of a strong younger vote as simply being the Lauren Cooper excuse of not being “bothered”. The lack of enthusiasm to strike crosses on ballot papers delves far deeper than that.

Young people unquestionably care about politics. I wrote, deleted and rewrote that sentence a couple of times before settling. People will point to the bleak turnouts of the 18-25 age group but politics is greater than political parties or voting.  Young people care about the time it takes for an ambulance to get their grandparents to hospital, how much they will need to pay to get a full education and how difficult it is to stand out in a competitive job market. That is what politics is really about.

In spite of this, there is a level of disconnect between them and political parties. That wedge did not just appear overnight with no tangible reason.

Our generation has been neglected by politicians over many years, no matter who has the keys to No.10, through disregard and unkept promises. The Government hasn’t just ‘got it out’ for young people – what it has been doing is far worse than that. It knows that they can let us down time after time, and not be punished at the ballot box.

Politicians must, over time, destroy that culture and history in order to regain trust and a connection. National days of ‘action’, voter registration events and a few televised ad campaigns will not even scratch the surface.

The debate needs to be broadened with proposals of compulsory and online voting being addressed properly.

The trip to polling stations is viewed as an inconvenience in people’s busy lives. The growth and evolution of technology has allowed us to complete tasks in seconds with little hassle and while the rest of the world has adapted to suit that, the traditional way of voting has been at a standstill.

Matched with polling station, proxy and postal voting, online voting will aid the recovery of election turnouts to an acceptable level and legitimise outcomes.

Even so, the problem is not with the actual percentage, but what it represents. Voting online or compulsory voting will not change the assumption of many that the elite disregard vulnerable or weak factions in society. People want to be both listened and heard – so a platform must be created to do just that. A Welsh Youth Assembly will put us on the right track to realise that ambition.

Understanding and clarity are hallmarks of a democratic society. Select committees, hung parliaments, coalitions, referenda and all sorts of other complicated terminology and processes makes politics seem untouchable with its own corporate jargon that, deliberately or otherwise, leads to people feeling unqualified to vote.

There are thousands of people in Wales, young and old, who don’t know their FPTPs from their STVs. Thats a problem, but what could be the solution?

I don’t like quoting Tony Blair, but here I go: “Education, education, education”. While the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification does involve elements of politics, knowing party colours, logos and designing your own logo for a party you made up is as complex as it gets.

To achieve a well-informed, engaged and politically active Wales, the onus is upon us all concerned about the democratic deficit to advocate a strong, sufficient level of impartial political education.

So, those are the democratic problems that lie ahead for Wales. Where that path leads, though, isn’t predetermined. The future is ours to mould and the issues are ours to face should we choose to act.

Brett John is a 17 year old college student from Llanelli interested in politics. He tweets at @brettedwardjohn.

10 thoughts on “Making voting a habit for the next generation

  1. Good piece. If we want greater engagement we need to change the method of voting. Voting on mobile devices should become possible – and finger-print or iris recognition would make it far more secure than the steam-age system we use now.

  2. Something I hadn’t considered before the referendum vote was the difficulty in actually voting when you travel around a lot and you’re not sure what you’re plans are going to be or where you will be opn the day. I managed to register for a postal vote just in time, when I discovered that I had be somehwere in the North of England on the day of the referendum. If I had had a few days less notice or wasn’t determined enough to go for a postal vote, then I simply wouldn’t have been able to Vote.

    These days people are more mobile and cannot guarantee to be in their electoral area on the day of a vote. Isn’t it time that we found a secure way to vote on-line. We can do secure on-line banking and pay our taxes securely, with methods that are probably more safe from fraud than a pop it in the ballot box method. If we want more people to vote, then make it as easy as possible to do so. It can actually be difficult to vote in person, when there are work commitments, music festivals and all sorts of other events and family occasions going on.

  3. “People want to be both listened and heard – so a platform must be created to do just that. A Welsh Youth Assembly will put us on the right track to realise that ambition.”

    I fail to see how the creation of this will do anything to boost turnout of the disaffected and disillusioned. The only people who’ll stand and vote in such a contest will be those already engaged in politics.

    You mention that the turn out in the 2015 GE (arguably more important, expected to be far tighter, and which had a much higher profile than the 2016 Assembly election) was just 64% -what do you think of the statistic that shows over half of people never vote in Assembly elections – let alone council elections where real bread and butter stuff is up for debate?

  4. Compulsion. It’s the only answer. It would revolutionise politics overnight and maybe that’s why it hasn’t happened. We older folk quite like having the whip hand but certainly if voting was compulsory we would still be in the EU. I don’t shed tears for the younger generation though. At the general election the Tories made it plain that they would allow a vote on EU membership; where were the youngsters then to make sure the Tories didn’t get in?
    Even better; everyone should buy their vote for £2 in Wales and then one voter’s name comes out of a lottery to claim the prize. Good odds, carrot and stick. Solved.

  5. Just imagine how much easier it would be for everybody to engage with politics if we only had 2 layers of government to engage with! That’s Westminster and County Councils – it’s all we need. Rumour has it that one unnecessary and damaging layer is about to be lifted off our backs… Once we dump the EU we should dump the remnants of the EU NUTS1 Regional legislatives as well – scrap legislative devolution and the sooner the better before it does any more damage. Let’s get rid of both Nathan Gill’s jobs! Let’s dump the Council of Europe as well… There’s an awful lot in bloated British politics that needs putting out with the trash instead of engaging with it…

  6. John “the Assembly Must be Abolished” Walker, I fail to understand this chip you have on your shoulder about the Welsh Assembly. I know the dinosaurs of the Abolish Wales Party are scared that Wales having a small say in how Wales is run will in some mysterious way lead to the break-up of the UK (it seems the leader of the Abolish Wales Party had a revelation the Assembly will lead to the death of the UK. Most people in Wales, including myself, don’t want an independent Wales but do want the Assembly.. The lies of the Abolish Wales Party are toddler like, just keep ranting “Assembly has failed, Assembly has failed, Assembly has failed” over and over again. They tried that in the EU referendum and the next gleefully admitted “we lied”.

  7. Paul,
    I don’t think one project is going to turn the tables and boost the turnouts. But the fact is that Wales is one of the only countries in Europe without a Youth Parliament – how does that make young people in Wales feel? They won’t feel listened to and don’t have an opportunity to share their voices.
    With regards to the Assembly point, I agree. When initially writing this piece I wrote about how around 15% of all eligible voters in Wales voted for Labour yet they ended up with a team of 29 AMs. Turnouts across the board need to be raised.

  8. Most people take no interest in politics and couldn’t tell you who the Home Secretary is or any member of the Welsh Cabinet. So why are we so keen for them to vote? The vote will just express an emotional spasm not anything more considered. The European referendum had a good turnout and the uninformed used it to cut their own nose off to spite their face. People who can’t be bothered to vote shouldn’t vote. A more interesting question is how do you get more people interested in politics and keen to inform themselves. Perhaps you can’t but in that case we are better off with a low turnout. I oppose making voting easier by mobile phone or any other device. Yes, some voters will be obsessives – taking an interest is a necessary but not sufficient condition for casting sensible vote. Still, a higher proportion will be sensible with a low turnout than if the turnout is high. Let the “I couldn’t care less, they’re all the same” brigade stay home, where they’ll do less damage. In a democracy the electorate selects itself.

  9. R.Tredwyn,
    This article isn’t merely about reaching arbitrary aims for turnout for no reason, it’s trying to address the reasons why the numbers are like they are.
    There are people, lots of people, who are uniformed – that’s why thorough political education is vital.
    But if we just accept the view that 40% of the electorate can’t be bothered to vote and make no attempt to change that, then what direction are we going to go in? There will be groups in society – the vulnerable, the young, the poor – who will remain voiceless.
    We also need to use current stats as a projection of where we could end up a generation or two down the line whereby elections will just pass by unnoticed with tiny turnout percentages. That’s clearly a problem and if you can see that then you’ve got to agree that something will need to be done to sort it out. It’s not just some abstract idea, it is a very real prospect.

  10. “Destination: A broken democracy.” We have already arrived. First Past The Post (FPTP) is no longer fit for purpose and hasn’t been for many years. There are a number of reasons for this, but one is that it is very divisive, apart from the recent vote on the UK’s membership of the EU, FPTP has probably pushed us further towards the break up of Great Britain than anything else.

    I’m under 30, and have voted at the past few elections (normally by post) but my vote never seems to count. I’m beginning to think voting is pointless. We need a voting system which gives voters a fair say, and a one-representative-per-constituency system cannot do that. Personally, I think we need something similar the system used to elect the regional members to the National Assembly for Wales. Each constituency would be larger than the current FPTP constituencies but smaller than the assembly regions (such as Mid & West Wales, far too big an area for AMs to represent) and have 6-8 members representing it, allocated proportionally. However, there should also be an accompanying ballot paper allowing voters to rank the order of candidates on each party’s list. This is so that voters have a say over, for example, which two of Labour’s eight candidates for an eight-member constituency are elected if Labour win two of the eight seats.

    It is not just the voting system which corrupts our democracy though; there is also far too much money in politics. The amount each party can spend on their campaigns needs to be strictly limited.

    aledf makes a good point about potentially not being in your home area on polling day, perhaps everyone should be sent their ballot paper and be able to return it by post or at any polling station wherever they happen to be.

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