The younger electorate: what's the future?
The fact that fewer people appear to be engaging with conventional politics - measured in terms of voting behaviour, party political identification and thinking that voting is a civic duty - may be related to changes in the make-up of the British population or, more specifically, to differences across the generations. In Table 3.6 we see that, in nearly every aspect of political engagement reported, younger people lag behind older members of the electorate. Younger people are less likely to feel it a civic duty to vote (45 per cent compared with an average of 62 per cent of the population, and 73 per cent of those aged 65 or over) and less likely to have reported voting in the last general election when we asked in 2010 (45 per cent compared with 69 per cent of everyone, and 88 per cent of those aged 65 or over, though we should be wary of the small sample size for our youngest group). Six in ten (61 per cent) of 18-24 year olds identify with a political party, again, below the average of 72 per cent for everyone, and three in ten (32 per cent) are interested in politics - not that dissimilar to age groups upto 55, though again we should be wary of the small sample size here.
If the relative lack of interest among young people is simply a factor of their age (and they will become more engaged as they get older), we might be less concerned than if we are looking at a generational change, with younger generations generally less engaged than their parents and grandparents. Certainly, with the drop in turnout in the 2001 and 2005 elections, concerns have been raised about this generational shift: if a sense of voting duty is not acquired soon after someone reaches voting age, they seem less likely to develop this and thus ensure they vote throughout their lives (Butt and Curtice, 2010); they do not acquire the 'habit' of voting (see, for example, Plutzer, 2002, Gerber et al., 2003). So, we turn now to look at the differences between younger and older people across a range of questions we have discussed earlier in the chapter - party political identification, civic duty, interest in politics, and political activity. In particular, we unpick the question of whether differences across age groups seem likely to lead to long-term change in the public's engagement with politics. (See the Technical details chapter for further explanation of this type of analysis.)
Identification with a political party
If we look at the proportion of people across different age cohorts who identify with a political party, what light does that shed on whether the decline in identifying with a political party that we have seen since the mid-1990s is likely to continue? Table 3.7 shows the proportion of people saying that they identify with a particular political party. If we look along each row we can establish how each cohort's allegiance to a political party changed as it grew older. For instance, of our cohort born in the 1930s, 90 per cent identified with a political party in 1983, and 84 per cent did so in 2012. Meanwhile, if we read diagonally upwards from left to right we can compare the proportions of people with a party allegiance among similar age groups in each year. It is this diagonal comparison which tells us whether there are generational differences, with each successive cohort entering the electorate with a different viewpoint on politics.
We can take a number of key points from this table. Firstly, looking across each row, it seems that there has been a drop in the proportion of people with a party allegiance across all age groups. So, there are changes at a societal level (a period effect) causing certain people across the age spectrum to dis-align themselves from a political party, resulting in fewer people overall connecting with any party. For instance, among those born in the 1950s, 85 per cent entered the electorate with a political allegiance but only 75 per cent of them still have one in 2012. This runs counter to evidence published in the 1960s that partisanship increases with age, as one builds on continuing support for one party (Converse, 1969): this seems no longer to be the case. Secondly, the younger cohorts seem to be more likely than older cohorts to have lost their allegiances (shown by the percentage point differences in the right hand column). So, mixed with the period effect, is a lifecycle effect, differentially affecting younger cohorts. This leads us to our third point: by looking diagonally upwards from left to right, we see that, since 1991, each successive cohort of young voters has entered the electorate less likely to identify with a political party than its predecessor. So, there is a 'generational' change. For instance, in 1983, 85 per cent of 24 to 33 year olds had an allegiance with a political party; by 2002 only 75 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds did, and by 2012 that figure has dropped further to 66 per cent.
As a result of these period, lifecycle and generational effects, there is a widening gap in partisanship between young and old. In 1983 and 1991 there was very little difference across the age spectrum, with our youngest group only three percentage points behind our oldest group in 1983, and no difference in 1991 in terms of the proportion with a party allegiance. Young people were as likely as their older counterparts to enter the electorate with a party allegiance. By 2002, the gap was 16 percentage points, and by 2012 it is 25 percentage points.
So, what can we conclude about the future of partisanship? Overall, these findings imply that partisanship will continue to fall, if all other things remain equal. However, one issue that we cannot factor in is the character of the political parties. Over the period since British Social Attitudes began, there has been a convergence towards the centre of the three main parties, resulting in the public differentiating less between their policies and values. Should one or more parties move away, towards the left or the right, or should parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) move further to the fore, then the nature of the parties may influence trends in partisanship.
Duty to vote
Table 3.8 uses the same format as Table 3.7, showing the British public's views on whether it is their civic duty to vote, which we first asked on British Social Attitudes in 1991. Just as older people are more likely to vote, they are also more likely to say that it is their civic duty to do so: in 2011 50 per cent of 22 to 31 year olds and 70 per cent of people aged 72 to 81 said that it was. But, our interest is in whether this is simply a factor of people's life stage, with people's sense of duty increasing as they get older, or whether there are generational shifts in people's views on the issue, and whether the overall decline in feelings of civic duty has happened across all, or only certain, age groups (that is, whether there is a period effect).
The answer seems to be that there are lifecycle, generational and period effects going on here. At the top of Table 3.8, we repeat the figures showing an overall decline in the proportion of people saying it is everyone's duty to vote that we showed in Figure 3.2. Looking across the table rows, at each age cohort, we find a mixed picture, with some age cohorts showing a fall in feelings of civic duty as they age, and others showing an increase. There is limited evidence to suggest that, among more recent cohorts, their feelings of civic duty increase as they age, but the picture is by no means clear. The difference between our youngest and oldest groups at each time point shows a fairly consistent difference (of between 20 and 26 percentage points) in the proportions who believe it a civic duty to vote. So, while the gap between oldest and youngest is not widening, we have seen that younger people entering the electorate have been less likely to believe in this civic duty than their predecessors 20 years ago, but no different to those a decade ago. The trajectory in terms of future levels of civic duty is currently unclear.
Interest in politics
We noted earlier that, while levels of public interest in politics have fluctuated over the past 25 years or so, they are higher now than in 1986 (36 per cent and 29 per cent respectively). Given the link between interest in politics and voting, what is happening here in terms of the younger and older electorate, and what can that tell us about the young and future electorates? Table 3.9 shows the proportions saying they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of interest in politics. We can see that young people are less likely to be interested in politics than older people: in 2012, 23 per cent of 23 to 32 year olds are interested, compared with 39 per cent of those aged 73 to 82, and 51 per cent of those aged 63 to 72. We can see that this gap between young and old has widened: in 1986 the gap between the proportions of our interested youngest and oldest groups was seven percentage points, while our latest reading is more than double this at 16 percentage points. Most of the increased interest in politics overall (seven percentage points up on 1986) can be attributed to the older electorate - becoming more interested in politics over their lifetime (shown by the percentage point differences in the right hand column).
Other ways of engaging in the political process
We have established that young people are less likely to turn out to vote, they are less likely to identify with a particular political party, they have less of a feeling of civic duty about voting and they are less interested in politics. We also have (albeit mixed) evidence that things are getting worse over time, with the young electorate increasingly disengaged with the democratic system. One thing we established earlier (from Table 3.3) is that less conventional forms of engagement with politics are slightly on the rise. So, we wondered whether, perhaps, this was being dominated by young people, deciding to attempt to influence the way the country is run by alternative routes. Table 3.10, showing what people of different ages report having done in 2011, indicates that this is in fact not the case. People over the age of 30 were more likely than their younger counterparts to have done things like sign a petition or contact their MP.
However, it is possible that the British Social Attitudes question does not adequately capture the range of political activities with which younger people engage. Commentators such as McCaffrie and Marsh (2013: 114) talk about the fact that younger people think less about politics as things that happen within formal institutions and processes and more about "politics as occurring more broadly in society, both within and outside formal institutions and processes". So, for example, it may be that young people buy fair trade or environmentally friendly products rather than boycott 'bad' ones. Added to this is the notion of the 'Everyday Maker' (see Bang and Sorensen, 1999), whereby political identity or allegiance is associated with a particular problem or project; once the problem is solved the participant may not engage again in politics until something else comes along which they feel strongly about (McCaffrie and Marsh, 2013).
The effect of a more educated electorate
Over the past 30 years the proportion of people going on to higher education has increased dramatically. For instance, in 1983, seven per cent of the people interviewed in the first British Social Attitudes survey had a degree level qualification. In the 2012 survey, that percentage is 21 per cent, with younger people far more likely to have a degree than older people. Traditionally, those with higher levels of education turn out to vote in higher numbers than those who are less well educated: 76 percent of British Social Attitudes respondents with degree level qualifications or above reported voting in 2010, compared with 63 per cent with O levels or equivalent (though we should note that 73 per cent of those with no qualifications also reported voting). Given this, there are some interesting questions about likely future voting patterns, taking into account the traditional disengagement of youth and engagement of the more educated.
In 2012, across a range of measures, people with higher levels of education are engaging in politics more than those who have lower or no qualifications. Table 3.11 shows the proportion of people interested in politics, feeling they have a civic duty to vote, that politics are too complicated to understand and that they have no say in government, split by their highest educational qualification.
So, with rising education levels, we might have expected a long-term increase over time in the proportion of the public engaged in the political system. But, apart from a slight increase in interest in politics, we have shown this not to be the case. In fact, where we do find differences over time between the education levels, these suggest that any positive changes are being driven by the less rather than better educated sectors of the population. For instance, Table 3.12 shows the proportion of the population expressing an interest in politics over time. Comparing 1986 with 2012, the increased interest in politics comes from those with O levels or equivalent (up five percentage points) and those with no qualifications (up four percentage points).
This might be a feature of increased media coverage and accessibility to following politics now than in the past. However, it may also be to do with the fact, with the relatively recent rise in levels of people entering higher education, that those with degree level qualifications are now younger on average than they were in the early 1980s. So, we may be seeing the interaction between younger people's tendency to be less engaged in politics with the more educated's tendency to be more engaged.
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The direction of someone's party identification is ascertained via a sequence of questions as follows: first, all respondents are asked
Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?
Those who do not name a party in response are then asked
Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?
Those who still do not name a party are then asked
If there were a general election tomorrow, which political party do you think you would be most likely to support?
3. This finding is sharply at variance with that reported by the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement in 2012 and 2013, which found that there had been a marked decline in interest in politics. We would note that the change in the level of reported interest in that survey coincided with a change in the contractor undertaking it and thus perhaps might be a consequence of a change in how the survey was conducted (Hansard Society, 2013).
4. Data are as follows:
5.The Labour government hosted such a page on its Number 10 website, and the coalition government launched a directgov webpage in 2011 to house all e-petitions (which repeatedly crashed on its first day as it received more than 1,000 unique visits a minute) ( www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/04/government-e-petition-website-crashes). Any petition with more than 100,000 signatures is assured a chance to be debated and voted in the House of Commons.
6. Data are as follows:
7. Bases for Table 3.6 are as follows:
8. Bases for Table 3.7 are as follows:
9. Bases for Table 3.8 are as follows:
10.Bases for Table 3.9 are as follows:
11.Arguably the British Social Attitudes question is biased against young people, given it asks whether someone has "ever" done something. A better question might be whether an individual had undertaken an activity in the past 12 months (this is asked on the International Social Survey Programme, see Martin, 2012).
12.In 2012 the figures reported on British Social Attitudes were:
13. In 2010 our data showed:
14.Bases for Table 3.11 are as follows:
15.Bases for Table 3.12 are as follows:
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