RACHEL RICKARD STRAUS: I always thought young people were the most political - so why aren't they voting? They're paying a heavy price for it...

There is a prize more cherished by the EU remain camp than any celebrity endorsement or statistic purporting to show Brexit would trigger an apocalypse. It’s the elusive younger voter.

While 18-34 year olds are least likely to vote of any age group, if they did they would be most likely to vote to remain, polls suggest.

The latest from Ipsos Mori found 68 per cent of young people were in favour of remaining, versus 42 per cent of over 65s.

The desperate scramble for youth votes has led in the past week to desperate pleas from David Cameron, Sadiq Khan – and a cringe-worthy advert telling young people to take time out of ‘ravin’, ‘chattin’ and ‘roamin’ to try out some ‘votin’.

Voter turnout has plummeted among younger votes but has remained steady among over 65s, the figures from the British Election Study reveal

But since when have young people not voted?

Throughout history students have so often been behind major political change: the angry ones fighting for reform, protesting, leading riots, still imbued with the idealism that can often be eroded over time.

Does that zeal not translate into voter turnout, is the decline in young voters a recent phenomenon - or is my view a total misconception in the first place? 

Voting figures shed some light. Although there are no official figures for turnout by age group, there is a long-running academic survey by the British Election Study, which provides reasonably consistent survey-based data from 1964 onwards.

I compared the turnout figures for 18-24 year olds against those for voters aged 65 plus.

They reveal that older people have always been a bit more likely to vote. However what it surprising is how much starker this divide has become in recent years.

In 1992, turnout for younger versus older voters was 67.3 per cent versus 79.2 per cent. Then in 1997 – the year of the New Labour landslide – the youth vote fell off a cliff with the turnout of just 54.1 per cent while the older vote remained reasonably buoyant at 77.7 per cent.

The youth vote has been low ever since, while the turnout of older voters has remained steady.

So what has gone wrong?

A former researcher for the think tank the IPPR believes it’s the product of a ‘vicious cycle’.

‘Young people don’t see things in the political system that serve them in some way and so they are less likely to vote,’ he says.

‘Then politicians know that younger people are less likely to vote, so they are less likely to come up with policy directed towards them. And so it continues.’

A study from the IPPR of the 2010 spending review found that those who did not vote in the 2010 general election faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent of those who did not vote.

It found 16-24 year olds faced cuts to services worth 28 per cent of their annual household income, compared to ten per cent for those aged 55-74.

Seen in this light it may come as no surprise that tuition fees have been rising as pensioners have enjoyed a 'triple lock' on their state pensions, and non means-tested benefits such as free public transport, TV licence and cash towards energy bills.  

Professor of British Politics at Cardiff University Pete Dorey adds that voting is often a matter of habit, one that is much more likely to be instilled in older generations. For an older person who always votes, it is less of an effort or decision to do so in any particular election.

Cringin: The advertising campaign designed to encourage young people to vote to remain in the EU referendum

He adds: ‘Younger people are more likely to be disillusioned with politics and less likely to identify with a mainstream party than older voters.

‘They also might not feel some of the key issues are as relevant to them yet – such as taxation, or health or pensions.

‘Surveys often show that older voters in general have greater loyalty to a particular party – they’ve found a party allegiance and require less of a compulsion therefore to go out and vote for them.’


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He speculates that the decline in younger votes in 1997 could have been because Tony Blair's victory looked like such a dead cert that those not in the habit of voting might not have felt the need to make an especial effort to do so.  

He adds that it is understandable the referendum camps will try to target these voters but the danger is that they feel they’re being 'patronised by grown-ups' if they’re singled out in that way.

And what about the angry, young people – am I just harking back to a golden age that no longer exists?

Glenn Gottfried at Ipsos Mori suggests that that age may not even have existed. ‘There was an interesting study a few years ago that showed young people were less likely to support the Vietnam war than older people.'

Perhaps the politically active do exist, but that stereotype masks the overwhelming norm. ‘There will be a proportion of 18-24 year olds who are, but their peer group as a whole just isn’t,' Gottfried adds.

However the historical voting data shows that although there’s always been a gap between younger and older voters, it was never this bad.

We need to turn the trend back round again. Failing to vote will cost young people perhaps more than they realise. However I fear the efforts of #votin might not be the answer. 

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