This issue is particularly acute in Britain as age is a bigger political divide here than in most other democracies.Louis Ashworth for Varsity

During the 2019 general election, only 47% of 18-25-year-olds voted, 20% below the national average. This difference is far greater in Britain than in most other democracies.

The problem with such a low youth voter turnout is that it is leaving young people’s voices out of politics. As Sian Brooks, of the youth voting organisation The Politics Project, put it, “ultimately we have a government in power at the moment where their demographic is older voters, and it’s their incentive to tailor to older voters.”

This issue is particularly acute in Britain as age is a bigger political divide here than in most other democracies

This issue is particularly acute in Britain as age is a bigger political divide here than in most other democracies. While conservative under-30s are not uncommon in the US or EU, only one in ten under-40s will vote Conservative at the next general election according to opinion polls. The Labour Party would have won 544 seats if voting was limited to 18-24-year-olds in the 2019 election (the Tories would have won just four).

Therefore, when politicians target older voters, they end up ignoring issues that young people care about. The Conservatives are well known for taking this approach, but this is true of the current Labour Party too. Labour rejected an EU offer to allow Britons aged between 18 and 30 to live, study and work in the EU, despite the fact this age group is the most pro-EU in the country. Further, messaging has often been tailored to the oldest age groups, with a recent major campaign preying on fears that pensions will see their value depleted by Conservative economic mismanagement.

When speaking to fellow Cantabs about their voting plans, it became apparent that, while most people planned to vote, many were unconvinced that their vote would carry much weight. The major parties seem to have little to offer young people – their messaging is not tailored to them and their policies disregard their views. Who could blame them, though? Victory at the next general election is going to come from winning high-turnout swing groups over, not by catering to a group which neither votes in significant numbers nor is likely to vote for any party other than Labour.

For Brooks, this represents a “cycle”, one where “young people aren’t voting and therefore young people aren’t being represented, and because they’re not being represented, young people aren’t motivated to vote.” Giving young people a voice, therefore, requires us to break this cycle – but how?

“I’m a big believer in education… basic information like how do you register to vote, how do you find where your local polling station is, what do you need to go to vote – like photo ID – it’s not compulsory that young people are learning that in schools,” Brooks said.

“Young people aren’t voting and therefore young people aren’t being represented”

This was a sentiment shared by Cambridge students. One interviewee commented that “there’s a lot of barriers to vote”. It is not compulsory for British schools to teach students the complicated ins and outs of voting, and doing this would be a start.

But practical knowledge is only part of the problem. As another student told me: “I wish there was more information for first-time voters on […] how to understand what your vote means”. Despite their low turnout, young people are among the most politically engaged, so the problem is not making them aware of political issues. What needs to be communicated is how a vote can be used to make changes happen, because young people all too often feel that their vote changes nothing.

Brooks was adamant that voting is always important, bringing up her own South Wales constituency, which was won by just 21 votes at the 2015 general election, to illustrate how impactful a small number of votes can be. In cases like these, the opportunities seem clear for youth voters to exploit. But, when young people feel that their vote is largely ineffective, they are not entirely wrong, especially in the current political climate. Since young people overwhelmingly vote Labour and are concentrated in Labour-voting areas, they are politically less valuable than other groups.


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Larger structural issues, therefore, are at play here too. The Cambridge students I spoke to repeatedly complained about features of the British electoral system that were limiting the power their vote could wield – namely the lack of third-party alternatives to the Conservatives and Labour, and living in “safe seats” (of which Cambridge is one), where their votes had minimal bearing on the overall result of the general election. Both are the fault of the First Past the Post electoral system, and proportional representation could be another necessary step in giving the youth a voice.

It is undeniable that young people are politically engaged, and are yearning for a government that responds to them. According to Brooks, “we need, in the next election, an incredible wave of young people to vote, and it will hopefully make politicians go “oh, ok, young people care, I need to listen to what they have to say”. Brooks is hopeful for the future, but if such a wave is to materialise, responsibility needs to be taken for the fact that mainstream party politics is failing to engage young people.