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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Young, poor and not voting

Compulsory voting for first-time voters could kick-start voting habit

Turn-out inequality, the gap between those who vote and those who do not, could grow at the election, according to a new report from the think tank IPPR published today. The report shows that in the 2010 general election just 44 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 voted, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. The report shows that this gap has grown at an alarming rate in recent years jumping from 18 percentage points in 1970 to 32 points in 2010.

New polling by YouGov in the report shows only one in four voters in the lowest social-economic group (DE) believes democracy addresses their interests well, half as many compared to those in the highest social-economic group (AB). Almost two thirds of voters in the lowest social-economic group say that democracy serves their interests badly, while less than one in ten think politicians understand the lives of people like themselves.

The report also shows that the gap between turnout rates among richer and poorer people is also growing. In the 1987 general election there was only a four-point gap in the turnout rate between the highest and the lowest income quintiles; by 2010 this had grown to 23 percentage points. Only 53 per cent of those within the lowest income quintile voted, compared to 75 per cent of those in the highest income quintile. This meant someone in the richest quintile was 43 per cent more likely to vote in 2010 than someone in the lowest income quintile, with clear inequalities of influence between rich and poor at the ballot box as a result.

IPPR estimates that the 2010 spending review saw an average loss in services and benefits of £1,850 per voter compared to £2,135 per non-voter. More starkly, this represented an estimated 11.6 per cent of the annual income of voters and a full 20 per cent of the income of non-voters.

The report highlights other problems with our voting system. The report shows that the number of marginal seats has actually halved, from just above 160 in 1955 to roughly 80 in 2010. It also shows that the most powerful 20 per cent of voters have 21 times as much power as the least powerful (where 'power' is based on the chance of a seat changing hands and the number of voters required to do so in each constituency). The report also shows that in the 2010 general election it took 33,468 votes to elect a Labour MP, 35,028 votes to elect a Conservative MP, and 119,780 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. UKIP, meanwhile, received 900,000 votes nationally without electing an MP. This disproportionality is expected to continue at the upcoming general election.

The report shows that across Europe, only Poland and Latvia have a lower percentage rate of party membership as percentage of national electorate than the UK. While overall membership of political parties in in long-term decline, the UK is experiencing rapid growth of traditionally less-established political parties like the SNP, Greens and UKIP.


Mat Lawrence, IPPR Research Fellow, said:

"Long-run decline in voter turnout in the UK is being driven by the relative collapse in participation among the young and the less well-off, not by a uniform decline in turnout among all groups. A distinctive non-voting population – generally younger and poorer – heightens political inequality by giving some groups far greater influence at the ballot box.

"Representative democracy clearly needs a reboot. The old fear that democracy would lead to the tyranny of the majority, has increasingly been replaced by a fear of the tyranny of the minority; we have gone from John Stuart Mill to Thomas Piketty, from a fear of the masses to the problem of the 1 per cent as the chief threat to democratic equality.

"There are reasons for optimism though: from the widespread democratic mobilisation during and after the Scottish referendum to the grassroots energy of groups such as the New Era estate housing campaign, the expansion of social media and online campaigning and the rapid growth of traditionally less-established political parties. Politics is changing but our political system is not.

"Compulsory voting for first time voters could help kick start the habit of a lifetime. Without radical reform, we risk sleepwalking into a more divided democracy."

Last week, US President Barak Obama, said:

"It would be transformative if everybody voted. If everyone voted, that would completely change the political map in this country".The people who tend not to vote are young, they're lower income, they're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups. There's a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls."


Notes to Editors

IPPR new report – Political Inequality: why British democracy must be reformed and revitalised – will be available on Monday 6 April from IPPR new report – Political Inequality: why British democracy must be reformed and revitalised – will be available on Monday 6 April from:

IPPR recommends compelling first-time voters to turn out to vote, in order to address this political inequality and to try to help kick-start voting as a habit of a life-time. Young voters would be required go to the polling station to vote but they would they would be given a "none of the above" option so they were not forced to vote for a party.

Approximately a quarter of all democracies in the world today employ some form of compulsory voting, and many have adopted the measure in the last few decades.Turnout in Australia has averaged 94.5 per cent in the 24 elections since 1946. In Belgium turnout has averaged 92.7 per cent in nineteen elections since 1946.

All eligible Australian citizens on the electoral roll are required to cast a vote in Federal and Commonwealth elections, unless they can provide a valid and sufficient reason for not voting, including:

  • It is part of the elector's religious duty to abstain from voting
  • The elector was not present in Australia on polling day
  • A belief that it is morally wrong to vote
  • Physical obstruction, either through sickness, outside prevention or natural events or accident.
  • Diversion to save life, prevent crime or assist in a disaster. 

Reasons not considered to be valid or sufficient include:

  • Conscientious objections to compulsory voting, falling short of a belief that it is morally wrong to vote
  • A belief that compulsory voting is inconsistent with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
  • No preference for any of the candidates

The Australian Electoral Commission is required to send three notices to all those who appear to have failed to vote, asking for a valid and sufficient reason or requiring the non-voter to pay a fine of AU$20 - the equivalent of about £8. Court proceedings for failure are prohibited if the elector pays the penalty or had a valid and sufficient reason for failing to vote. If, after receiving the third notice, the elector does not pay the penalty, the Electoral Commission may prosecute the elector for failure to vote. The court may impose a maximum penalty of AU$50 - about £20. A magistrate cannot sentence an elector who has been convicted of the offence of failure to vote to imprisonment. However, if an elector is fined by the court and refuses or neglects to pay the fine within the time allowed for payment, an arrest warrant may be issued.

Under the current rules, all those resident in the UK are obliged to provide Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) with the information they are asked for, or face a £1,000 fine. EROs then use this information to enter electors' names on the register. Thus electoral registration is effectively compulsory. The Coalition Government recently proposed moving to a system of voluntary enrolment at the time of the planned introduction of individual voter registration, but this proposal was abandoned. Reforms currently underfoot will see many voters registered automatically by EROs through the use of data held by other state agencies. BME voters in the 2010 General Election turned out to vote at roughly the same rate as 'White British' voters but there is a large discrepancy between those registered to take part in the election. The report cites forthcoming research from Anthony Heath that shows nearly 20 per cent of BME voters are not registered to vote – although they have the right to participate – while only 7 per cent of 'White British' citizens are not registered.

Party membership is in decline. Labour have around 190,000 members, the Conservatives around 134,000 and the Liberal Democrats around 44,000, though these numbers are prone to fluctuate. This is a sharp contrast to the early 1950s when combined membership of just the Conservative and Labour parties reached nearly 4 million. Less than 1 per cent of the UK electorate is now a member of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat parties, compared to 3.8 per cent in 1983. But the Scottish National Party has experienced a very dramatic growth in membership in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, while the Green party in England and Wales has seen its membership numbers for the first time pass 50,000 during the beginning of 2015. The United Kingdom Independence party also achieved a record growth in membership in 2014, reaching over 35,000.



Sofie Jenkinson, 07981 023 031, [email protected]

Richard Darlington, 07525 481602, [email protected]