Should we consider introducing Proportional Representation to reverse youth voter apathy?

Jonathan Hughes, IF Volunteer and Policy Researcher, considers the effect the introduction of Proportional Representation would have on youth voter apathyVoting

The Intergenerational Foundation champions the viewpoint that young people are being disproportionately disadvantaged by government policies, such as the rise in tuition fees. Data from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reveals that since the Coalition came to power in 2010, 16 to 24 year-olds have lost 28% of their household income because of austerity measures, on average, while those aged 55 to 74 have lost only 10%.

Some argue that politicians disregard young people when writing policy because they do not bother to vote. A recent IF attempted to measure the “intergenerational democratic deficit” and found that at the 2010 general election 76% of people aged 65 and over cast their vote whereas only 44% of those aged 18 to 24 did so. Is it any wonder, then, that politicians take less notice of the plight of younger generations?

A problem for government, too

IF calls for a fairer assessment of the situation. Low youth voter turnout is just as much a problem for government as it is for young people themselves. IF has already written an article on its blog on whether compulsory voting would reverse our democratic deficit, now we will consider whether Proportional Representation (PR) can also reverse young voter disenchantment. PR is one of two principal methods used to decide elections, the other being the plurality system (First Past the Post), PR is the preferred system in the OECD (70% use of “proportional systems”).

Proportional Representation is known to favour smaller parties. Simply put, this is because PR gives the voter multiple votes (dubbed ‘top-up votes’ in Wales) and a smaller party is not constrained by constituency boundaries (which can sometimes group Labour voters together etc.). This is crucial in combating youth voter apathy, as a vote for a smaller party would not be a wasted one. If a party has some chance of gaining legislative representation, a young person is more likely to vote for it.

In the United Kingdom, many people feel they only have a choice between the two large parties and, therefore, do not vote. So, PR would solve the problem of essentially uncontested constituencies by giving voters multi-member districts in which fewer of the votes for smaller parties would be wasted ones. For example, my constituency of Ogmore has been under the control of the Labour Party since its advent in 1918. In the last election, Labour recorded a 13, 246 strong majority over the Conservative Party. As a 20 year-old student, I have noticed that a number of my contemporaries have been discouraged from voting because of Labour’s monopoly of power in the region. Clearly, there needs to be a change from the plurality system.

Fostering voter turnout

One of the greatest strengths of PR is that, by increasing choice, it fosters voter turnout and in turn increases the mandate of government (receiving the vote from a greater section of the population). In 1990, a pair of academics named André Blais and R.K. Carty scrutinised 509 elections in 20 countries, and they found that when an election was undertaken under PR, voter turnout increased by “seven percentage points”. Unfortunately, the data is not broken down by age but the seven percentage point hike, with the chance to vote for smaller parties that could gain electoral representation, would undoubtedly be felt among younger generations.

Any proposal to introduce Proportional Representation in the UK in the near future would be likely to meet the same fate as the Alternative Vote Referendum in 2011. Thanks to a very well funded “No to AV” campaign and the perception that AV was merely a political concession by the Tory Party, it was robustly rejected by the British people. However, if both young and old were to understand the benefits Proportional Representation could have in reducing the apathy of our young and increasing the democratic credibility of the government, they may think again.