There has been a steady decline of youth voter turnout in general elections

Voters are unimpressed by Labour and Conservative policies announced to engage young people in politics and civic life, a new study shows.

Lowering the voting age to 16, reintroducing national service and compulsory voting were the least popular options for boosting youth turnout offered to those who took part in the research.

There has been a steady decline of youth voter turnout in general elections: in the UK, US, Canada and throughout most of Europe, young people today are less likely to vote than their parents or grandparents when they were the same age. In the 1979 British general election 63% of 18–24-year-olds voted; by 1992, it was 67%, but in 2019 it was only 55%.

With the help of YouGov, a research team led by Dr Stuart Fox at the University of Exeter is looking into public opinion about youth turnout in the election. The most popular measures to help among the nationally representative sample of around 2,000 British adults were teaching citizenship education in schools and allowing people to vote online.

The most popular measure was teaching citizenship education in secondary schools. When asked to rate their support on a scale from 0 (meaning ‘strongly opposed’) to 10 (‘strongly support’), just over a fifth of respondents strongly supported citizenship education, and only 4% opposed it. This was also the most popular measure among young people, with 27% of under-30s strongly supporting citizenship education and only 1% strongly opposing it. Online voting was also popular, with 21% strongly supporting it, but it is also more divisive, with 19% strongly opposing it (and similar numbers of under-30s supported and opposed the policy).

By far the least popular measures were those that have made it into the manifestos for the Labour and Conservative parties for this election. Labour’s plan to lower the voting age to 16 was strongly supported by only 10% of voters, and strongly opposed over a third. It was at least marginally more popular among the under-30s – with strong opposition falling to 17% and strong support rising to 15% – which is more than can be said for national service, to which 54% of under-30s are strongly opposed and 1% strongly support.

Most people thought government was responsible for getting more young people to vote: 38% saying it is ‘very much responsible’ for increasing youth turnout, vs. 9% who said it was ‘not at all responsible’. This was followed by political parties (35% vs. 8%) and parents (34% vs. 10%).

Dr Fox said: “Our research shows voters welcome a focus from political parties on youth turnout but oppose policies which have been announced. This is particularly the case among young people.

“They were of the view falling youth voter turnout is a concern, and that it is the job of the government and political parties to try and fix it. That the parties are giving more attention to how they might achieve that is certainly welcome, although the proposals they have to increase youth turnout don’t impress most voters, least of all the young people expected to benefit.”

Most voters – 63%, and 69% of those under-30 – agreed low youth turnout is a concern.

A total of 40% of those questions expected turnout on 4 July to be ‘a bit higher’ or ‘a lot higher’ than in 2019, while 30% expected it to be ‘a bit lower’ or ‘a lot lower’, and 21% expected it to be about the same. People were similarly divided about what will happen to youth turnout in particular: 37% expected the turnout of 18–24-year-olds to be below the national average, while 29% thought it would be above average.

A total of 63% agreed it is concerning young people today are less likely to vote – a figure that rose to 69% among the under-30s. Only 10% disagreed that this was concerning.