Social action as a route to the ballot box

Childhood volunteering can help reduce inequalities in electoral turnout, writes Dr Stuart Fox, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Exeter University

Widening inequality in turnout by age

One of the major challenges facing British (as well as European and American) democracy is widening inequalities in electoral turnout between young people and their elders. Since the 1970s, a growing proportion of young voters has opted not to vote in their first election, which has serious consequences because voting is habitual: people who vote in their first election are likely to keep voting throughout their adult lives, while those who don’t are likely to be lifelong abstainers. Between the 2010 and 2019 general elections, for example, 87% of those born between 1920 and 1951 (which includes the Baby Boomer generation) voted; this compares with 68% of those born between 1976 and 1986 (the Millennials); and just 57% of those born after 1987 (Gen Z). In addition, this decline in turnout is concentrated amongst the poorest members of those younger generations.

British elections, therefore, are increasingly determined by the interests of older, wealthier sections of the electorate, with serious consequences for government priorities, policy and public spending (as Brexit, restrictions to in-work benefits and the trebling of university tuition fees alongside unprecedented increases in the state pension illustrate).

We need to encourage the young

This has led to increased interest in measures that could help engage more young people with electoral politics. Attention typically focuses on efforts to lower the voting age to 16 or to introduce compulsory political education, but there has also been renewed interest in the potential for childhood volunteering schemes to help address the divide. The National Citizen Service and the compulsory volunteering component of the Welsh Baccalaureate, for example, were both introduced in part with the expectation that they would aid the civic and political development (including through boosting political participation) of young people.

Volunteering leads to political engagement

This reflects the long-held view that childhood volunteering can act as a wellspring of political engagement, providing young people with the chance to develop the social networks, civic skills, political knowledge and confidence, and community links that facilitate engagement with electoral politics when they reach adulthood. The evidence base for this is, however, surprisingly limited, because it is extremely difficult and expensive to gather data from the same person in childhood (about volunteering) and adulthood (about voting), and most children who volunteer come from wealthier, politically engaged households – making them likely to vote in adulthood regardless of their volunteering.

To try and overcome this, Social Action as a Route to the Ballot Box used the Understanding Society survey – an annual survey of UK households that gathers data from children as young as 11 years of age. Using a sample of newly eligible voters in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 UK general elections, it’s possible to compare how their likelihood of voting in their first election varied depending on whether they had volunteered in the previous 12-24 months. Crucially, we can do this while accounting for their interest in politics in childhood (before they volunteered) and their parents’ political engagement, allowing a more robust estimate of the ‘volunteer effect’ on turnout than has been possible in previous research.

Volunteering boosts political participation

Initially, the data suggests that childhood volunteering does boost turnout: 56% of those who volunteered before their first election said they were “certain to vote” compared with 46% of those who didn’t volunteer; effectively, a 10-point “volunteer effect”. Once pre-existing political engagement was accounted for, however, this effect disappeared – there was no longer a difference in voting likelihood regardless of volunteering. Whether the respondents were interested in politics in childhood dictated both whether they were likely to volunteer and vote. Of those who said they were “very interested in politics” in childhood, for example, 82% later said that they were “certain to vote” and 40% volunteered, compared with 34% of those who were “not at all interested” in politics who were “certain to vote” and 25% of whom volunteered.

Political education increases political engagement

This is not the end of the story, however. Research into the effects of political education in schools increasingly finds evidence of a “compensation effect”, whereby those from the least politically active households – who are likely to be poorer and, as noted above, the least likely to develop voting habits – exhibit the greatest increases in political engagement. Political education is thought to compensate for the lack of encouragement to engage with politics such children receive in their homes, not least because their parents are not particularly politically engaged themselves.

Volunteering turbocharges disengaged families

If we compare the effect of volunteering depending on whether newly eligible voters were raised by politically engaged or disengaged parents, we find a substantial volunteer effect for the latter. Of those raised by politically engaged parents (that is, they had at least one parent who was interested in politics during their childhood), 53% who did not volunteer in the 12/24 months before their first election said they were “certain to vote”, compared with 56% who did volunteer. This amounts to a negligible 3-point volunteer effect. For those raised in politically disengaged households (i.e., with no parent who was interested in politics), however, 31% who didn’t volunteer were “certain to vote” compared with 56% who did volunteer – a 25-point boost that all but eradicated the difference in turnout between those from politically disengaged (and typically poorer) and engaged (typically wealthier) households.

Childhood volunteering can help to close the gap in turnout by age

There is, therefore, a substantial potential for childhood volunteering schemes to reduce inequalities in turnout between young and old, and between young people from poorer and wealthier backgrounds. Through volunteering, children from politically disengaged households are given a unique opportunity to develop knowledge, awareness, confidence and community ties that are powerful resources in helping them engage with politics and vote. Those young people from wealthier, politically engaged households, on the other hand, receive little benefit, because they are likely to vote upon reaching adulthood anyway.

We need to invest more in engaging children from the poorest households

The caveat to this finding is that those from disengaged, poorer households are by far the least likely to volunteer. Of those newly eligible voters who reported volunteering (29% of the sample), 78% had politically engaged parents: barely one in five young volunteers were raised by politically disengaged parents. While volunteering is a potentially powerful way of reducing turnout inequalities between young and old, therefore, its success is contingent on the ability of volunteer organisations and schemes to attract children from the poorest communities. If anyone wishes to join the mailing list to stay updated about Social Action as a Route to the Ballot Box they should email [email protected].

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