Voters are becoming increasingly older and wealthier, according to new analysis from the think tank IPPR. In a report to be published next month, IPPR sets out evidence showing that younger people and people from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to vote in elections like those being held this Thursday (2 May).
This matters because governments are more likely to frame policies that appeal to groups who do vote and neglect the interests of those who don't, leading to greater political inequality.
IPPR's report 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 and fined if they didn't. But they would they would be given a "none of the above" option so they were not forced to vote for a party.
The report shows that overall electoral participation in the UK has dropped steadily from around four fifths of the electorate in a typical General Election in the 1960s to around three fifths in the General Elections held since 2000. The biggest drop in turnout has been among younger and poorer voters.
The report shows that older people are much more likely to vote than younger people: in 1970 there was an 18 point turnout gap between 18-24 year olds and those aged over 65, which had more than doubled to over 40 points in 2005, only narrowing to a 32 per cent gap in 2010. It shows that at the last General Election (2010) around 76 per cent of 60 year olds voted, whereas turnout among the 18-24 age group was just 44 per cent. Worryingly there is now clear evidence that younger voters who don't vote are less likely than previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they move into middle age.
A dramatic social class divide in electoral participation has opened up in recent decades. In 1987, the difference between the income group with the highest turnout rate and the group with the lowest rate was only 4 percentage points. In 2010 however this spread significantly increased to 23 percentage points - an increase of more than fivefold. By 2010, individuals, in the highest income group were 43 per cent more likely to vote than those who are in the lowest income group.
Guy Lodge, IPPR Associate Director, said:
"Unequal turnout matters because it gives well-off and older voters disproportionate influence at the ballot box and reduces the incentives for governments to respond to the interests of non-voting groups. We should not be surprised that the Education Maintenance Allowance has been scrapped, while universal benefits for the elderly have been protected.
"There is reason to believe that if young people were obliged by law to give voting a try, this could well go a long way toward kick-starting a life-time habit of voting.
"There are many other things that young people are required to do, not the least of which is go to school. Adding just one more small task to this list would not represent an undue burden, and it could well help to reinvigorate democracy. It would make politicians target first-time voters like never before and give young voters the potential for far greater political power."
"First-time voters could spoil their ballot papers or vote for 'none of the above' but over time, the effect would be that no-one could ever say 'I don't vote, I've never voted'"
Sarah Birch, Professor of Politics at the University of Essex, and co-author of the report said:
"When voting is less common among some groups than among others, politicians can afford to neglect the interests of the groups that are known not to vote so often. Members of these groups then rightly feel let down by politicians. This creates a vicious cycle of disaffection and under-representation.
A number of different strategies have been used to try to break this cycle, but none of them has proved effective. Something more radical is therefore called for. Mandatory electoral participation for new voters could well be very effective in engaging young people in politics and engaging politicians in young people."
Notes to Editors
1.Divided Democracy: political inequality in the UK by Sarah Birch, Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried will be published in May
3.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.
4.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:
oIt is part of the elector's religious duty to abstain from voting
oThe elector was not present in Australia on polling day
oA belief that it is morally wrong to vote
oPhysical obstruction, either through sickness, outside prevention or natural events or accident.
oDiversion to save life, prevent crime or assist in a disaster.
Reasons not considered to be valid or sufficient include:
oConscientious objections to compulsory voting, falling short of a belief that it is morally wrong to vote
oA belief that compulsory voting is inconsistent with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
oNo 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.
5. 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 abanded. 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.