General Election 2015: Could a low turnout of young people cost Labour victory?

Professor of Government at Essex University looks at the evidence that opinion polls may be overestimating the youth vote

Paul Whiteley@indyvoices
Thursday 30 April 2015 16:07

There is a big discrepancy between the willingness of young people to vote compared with their middle-aged and elderly counterparts. Actually it has always been true that younger people are less likely to vote than the rest of the population but the gap between different age groups has grown over time into a chasm. The chart shows the percentage of various age cohorts who say that they are certain to vote in the general election, using data from the monthly Essex Continuous Monitoring Survey for March 2015.

In 2015 some 45 per cent of the 18 to 25 year olds said they were certain to vote compared with 81 per cent of people over the age of 65. As the election approaches the number who say that they are certain to vote generally increases, but over the last year it has done so more for the oldest groups than for the young.

Why is this? The standard explanation is that young people tend to have less of a stake in the system than the middle-aged or the elderly. Few of them own a home, many are still in full-time education rather than in employment, and the majority are single and do not have children. They pay less tax, are more preoccupied with their private lives than with the public sphere, and many of them are not that interested in party politics, although they tend to be concerned about the big political issues facing the world today.

One reason why this difference is important in the current general election is that there is also a big difference between the voting intentions of young people and the elderly. If we pool together all the surveys conducted over the last year then 25 per cent of the youngest group say that they intend to vote Conservative compared with 47 per cent of the oldest group. In the case of Labour this is more or less reversed, with 46 per cent of the young intending to vote for the party compared with 23 per cent of the oldest group. The Liberal Democrat voting profile is rather similar to Labour and the UKIP voting profile shows the largest difference of all. Only 7 per cent of the youngest age group said they were going to vote for UKIP compared with 18 per cent for the oldest age group.

What does this mean for the opinion polls? It implies that the Conservatives and probably UKIP could do better than expected in the election than Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Labour and the Conservatives might be level pegging in voting intentions at the moment in the national polls, but these will not be accurate if they do not take into account the age bias. To be fair some pollsters do publish data for those who say they are certain to vote, but to get this right it is necessary to accurately measure likely turnout. Unfortunately, we know that some people who really want to vote but for one reason or another do not succeed in doing so on the day are more likely to lie to interviewers about their participation. So the data from questions about people being certain to vote may not provide an accurate picture.

An additional complication is the changes in the voting registration regulations, which mean that younger people are less likely to be registered to vote than they were in the past. This is because they have to register individually and cannot be registered as a group any more. For example, in the past universities would register all their students living on campus as a routine, but this is now no longer possible.

This means that the parties may not be neck and neck in the polls, but when it comes to votes cast in the ballot box this may not be true.

Professor Paul Whiteley is at the Department of Government at the University of Essex

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