Voting is crucial. But is enfranchisement enough to make a democracy when a significant part of the electorate fail to make their views heard?

The ignored third of society

Political engagement has been falling in the UK for the past 30 years and this has coincided with a third of the population consistently failing to vote. This historical trend has been repeating since the 1920s. However, in recent times the falling turnout has disproportionately increased amongst the young and the least affluent. For instance, in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 General Elections less than half of young voters cast their ballots (18-24-year-olds).

The magnitude of political disengagement, across all age groups, is grossly underestimated: in the 2019 General Election, the Conservative government won by a 27 per cent ‘majority’ — however, the real majority was the 33 per cent of people who did not vote. A true democracy is not just a display of voting power. It’s about governing by consulting the will of the people — something that’s evidently not the case in the UK when a third of the electorate is ignored.

The unheard third of society are students, ethnic minorities, lower-income workers and the unemployed. The reasons behind their political disengagement vary from a lack of knowledge and interest, to something more pernicious — losing faith in the political establishment. And what has been the government’s response to this seismic shift in political disengagement? To make voter registration more inaccessible.

For a democracy to be effective, it needs to be accessible. Presently, the viewpoints of older and more affluent citizens, who are more likely to vote, are over-represented. The latter are more likely to vote conservative too and this quickly reveals how a minority can skew politics for the majority. A democratic system that fails to encapsulate the will of the entire population, and where disengaged members have weaker voices, propagates a participation gap — creating favourable conditions for extremist and /or populist politics to gain a footing.

Awakening the politically disengaged 

In liberal democratic societies across the world, people from disadvantaged backgrounds participate far less than their more privileged counterparts. This socio-economically charged gap in democratic participation is a root cause of widespread political disengagement. Prof. Hoskins and Dr Janmaat state that:

unequal access to learning opportunities is the key driver of social disparities in political participation’.

The solution is obvious then. To equalise access to learning opportunities is to dismantle barriers to democratic participation. They suggest that making these opportunities compulsory and providing more of them in schools with a high concentration of disadvantaged children can eliminate social disparities in access.

To improve democratic participation is to focus on political re-engagement. To facilitate the latter, we can borrow from the findings of political scientists from the American Political Science Association who investigated highly politically engaged university campuses to ascertain the reasons behind their atypical participation. They found skilled discussion-based teaching, using current events, policy debates, and controversial issues as content to be the causative factor behind political engagement (pg. 31). Following efforts to improve political literacy, the introduction of compulsory voting could help reintroduce non-voters into politics and maintain their engagement. I do not see a logical reason as to why jury service is mandatory but voting is not. By this logic, we can trust the average person with the complex matters of ethics but not with voting for their welfare.

Moving forward, the government can ensure political literacy in students, no matter their background, by working with grassroots organizations — like Shout Out UK — to devise a framework for political engagement starting in the classroom. The next generation must be encouraged to lean into politics and question controversial issues. This is our best chance of rekindling political engagement in the youth and dismantling barriers to democratic participation.

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