It is easy to imagine that the result of young people being forced to vote, a recommendation made by think tank IPPR today, would be some kind of political dystopia. More politicians tweeting selfies at Notting Hill Carnival, more auto-tuned party broadcasts, fewer rational votes come ballot day. These fears aren’t unfounded – far from it – but are they in fact worse than the nightmare that we’re living in right now?
Because, if in less garish fashion, British democracy is already decrepit enough. At the 2010 election, 76 per cent of the over 65s voted, compared to just 44 per cent of those aged 18 to 24. The upshot? The Coalition had a mandate to protect the interests of the elderly, and little need to pay any attention to their grandchildren. Pensions were triple-locked. University fees tripled. The young lost out badly.
To combat this grey-haired skew the IPPR proposes that first-time voters be required to show up at a polling station on Election Day, with those who abstain receiving a small fine. This push, says the think tank, would reduce inequality. And it wouldn’t violate autonomy either, as an option to back “none of the above” would appear on ballot papers.
Certainly theirs is a controversial idea, and smacks of desperation. Many will wonder if we can’t inspire the young to vote rather than force them. But is there anybody left who still believes that social media and saccharine ad campaigns – of the sort that run pre-election time in the US – can be relied upon to melt hard-set political apathy? It doesn’t seem likely. More faith might be placed in education, but even with Michael Gove’s commitment to keep citizenship on the national curriculum, it would take a brave soul to predict that 2015 will see the radically increased young vote needed to rebalance UK democracy.
So, the strong-arm option remains. It is not so very outlandish as it might sound. In Australia voting is compulsory for all citizens – and the system there has an approval rating of around 70 per cent. My main worry at first was that to introduce mandatory voting for the young would sacrifice the satisfaction people gain in growing into a political awareness of their own free will. But, without the stipulation that anybody vote after that first time, citizens over 24-years-old can still take pride in making it to the ballot box without a statutory requirement to do so - or indeed choose to return to the backwaters of unrepresentation.
In practice, the IPPR’s proposal might be too radical to gain much traction. A situation in which the young vote alone is guaranteed would be cumbersome and perhaps unconstitutional. But let’s be clear: without some kind of push, the young are in real danger of falling off the political cliffs.