With the next general election set to take place in the ‘second half of the year’ according to Rishi Sunak, now is the perfect opportunity to reflect on what we want most out of our government.

General elections form a fundamental part of democracy because they allow us to vote for political parties and candidates whose beliefs align most with our own.

It is therefore a great tragedy that youth participation in democracy is low, especially in England.

Since the ’70s, 18-24-year-olds have had the lowest turnout in every election, with just over 50 per cent of this age group voting in the last general election in 2019.

Why Do Less Young People Vote?

There are a number of reasons why voting turnout is low amongst young people.

Firstly, this is a hectic time in people’s lives. Between the ages of 18-24, young people will be taking their first steps up the career ladder.

Whether they are studying for a degree, securing their first job, or maybe even doing both with an apprenticeship, young people will often be too preoccupied to find time in the day to learn about politics.

Politics is an A-level subject which only becomes available to students in England at the age of 16, leaving young people no choice but to learn about how Westminster operates outside of their lessons. This lack of knowledge greatly contributes to lower voting turnout amongst young people, as very few students in England receive any kind of political education.

With so much political terminology to memorise and many different parties and candidates to consider, the sheer amount of information young people have to digest can be overwhelming.

Why Is Voting Important?

Rt Hon Claire Coutinho, MP for East Surrey, explains why voting is so important:

‘Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy,’ she says. ‘Through voting, each of us has the great privilege of helping to decide how we should organise our shared life as a national community.

‘It is a powerful way to express our views and interests, as well as honour the sacrifices that previous generations have made to secure us these rights.’

So while there are other forms of political engagement, voting is the most powerful way we can express our voice. If young people do not vote, then policies and key political decisions will not cater to their needs.

How Do We Solve This Issue?

New evidence suggests that reducing the voting age in England may reignite interest in politics amongst young people.

A brilliant example of this is Scotland, which lowered its voting age to 16 in Spring 2016. With more youths able to vote in Scottish parliamentary and local elections, a positive effect was felt overall when it came to political engagement in the country.

A study conducted by the University of Sheffield and the University of Edinburgh in 2023 became the first of its kind in the UK to assess the long-term impact of lowering the voting age to 16 in Scotland.

The study found, on average, that more first-time voters (aged 16-17) were reported to have voted in the 2021 Scottish Parliament Election compared to the number of 18-19-year-olds.

The study also concluded that later on in life, 22-24-year-olds (who first voted at the age of 16-17) had a higher turnout in subsequent Scottish referendums than the 24-26-year-olds (who first voted when they were 18-19).

Dr Jan Eichhorn, who was the lead author of the study, gave his verdict:

‘Allowing 16- and 17-year olds to vote was a good decision taken by the Scottish Parliament. Many younger first-time voters retain a habit of voting and participate in greater numbers than older first-time voters …

‘But more can be done. Making sure all young people receive great civic education that includes learning how to discuss political issues well, could help reduce persistent social inequalities in turnout.’

As Eichhorn points out, raising political literacy amongst England’s youths is another key way to encourage more young people to vote.

Civic organisations such as Shout Out UK and the British Youth Council are dedicated to increasing young people’s engagement in politics, whether that’s through Youth Policy Development groups or campaigns to reduce the voting age to 16 in England.

Political literacy not only empowers young people to learn more about politics, but it also makes them feel less daunted by the responsibility of voting.

How Can You Prepare for the General Election?

I asked Ms Coutinho if she had any advice on how young people can begin preparing for the upcoming general election.

’I would encourage young people to follow the news, decide which issues are the most important to them, and find ways to get involved,’ she said. ‘Attend local debates with an open mind, try door-to-door campaigning, and discuss the issues with your friends and family. Whether you’re of voting age yet or not, there are plenty of exciting ways to participate.’

She added: ‘Choosing a party to support can be tricky, but I would always suggest reading the manifestos of each party when they are released — they contain all the policies and laws that the party hopes to introduce if they win the election. It’s important to pick a party that not only aligns with your values and views on the most important issues to you, but that you have confidence they will deliver on their promises.’

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