Was the AV vote an intergenerational issue?

Antony Mason suggests that younger generations risk a relentless erosion of their voter power

No exit polls were taken at the Referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV), so it is impossible to say quite how the vote went in terms of age bands. However, pre-Referendum polls suggested a strong bias among younger voters towards a Yes vote.

When asked in a YouGov poll, 75% of young voters aged 18–24 said they would vote Yes; and the idea seems to be generally favoured by the under 40s. In the over-60s bracket, by contrast, 56% per cent said they would vote to retain the first-past-the-post system.

Neither side in the campaign exactly covered themselves in glory, but the conclusion in brief has to be that the Yes-campaign simply failed to make their case – and they had to do that especially well to overcome the general trend for voters in referendums to opt for the status quo.

Fair representation?

Many voters around the country feel frustrated that they live in constituencies where an entrenched MP – through the first-past-the-post system – can rely on a large enough core vote to achieve victory time and again, gaining a majority against a split opposition with as little as one-third of the vote. AV seemed to suggest that an MP would have to gain at least 50%, or something approaching it. To the frustrated voter, that looks like a fairer system.

It wasn’t to be, and it may be a good while before the question of voting reform is raised again.

Outnumbered

In the meantime, the younger generation may feel increasingly disenfranchised, simply by a shift in demographics. The number of older people is growing in relative terms, as the baby-boomer generation heads into retirement, and lives for longer. In 1971, the over-60s accounted for 20% of the population; projections suggest that this will be heading towards 33% by 2020.

The median voting age is likewise shifting northwards: by 2020 more than half of the electorate will be over 50.

Turkeys voting for Christmas – not

The older generation also has a far better record for voting. At the 2010 election (when the turnout was unusually high), 76% of voters aged over 65 turned out; and 73% of the 55–64 year-olds. Compare this to 53% of the 25–30 year-olds and 44% of the 18–24 year-olds.

And while it would be wrong to suggest that, as an age group, the older generations lean towards any particular party, it can be safely assumed that most tend to vote for their own interests, and these are not necessarily going to coincide with the interests of the younger generation.

Think of pensions, bus passes, free television licences, winter fuel allowances: how many people enjoying these, or about to do so, are going to vote to lose them? And which party, looking at age demographics and voting patterns, is likely to suggest it?

So what can the younger generation do, now that any hope they placed in the AV vote has been dashed? Well, they could get out and vote in greater numbers, of course. They have to be persuaded to overcome their apathy, and that – even with the first-past-the-post system – their vote is precious

Lowering the voting age

There is also a good case to be made for lowering the voting age, maybe to 16. This would help to rebalance the demographic age bias by moving the fulcrum toward the young – by about 1.5 million potential voters.

Too young to vote? Well, it is not too young to marry and have babies (legitimately), or get a job and pay taxes.

Besides, most of this age group are likely to still be a school (provided that the last government’s plan to raise the school leaving age to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015 is honoured by the Coalition) and so can be educated in politics – with the added incentive that it is not all just dry theory: they can actually vote. It might give them a sense of belonging and responsibility just when it matters. Of course there will by some that won’t deserve the privilege, but they are unlikely to turn up at the polling station anyway.

It would also send a message from the political establishment that they are taking the interests of youth seriously.

Posted on: 20 May, 2011