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Earlier this week a centre-left think tank called the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) announced that it thought that all young people should be made to vote in the first election subsequent to their 18th birthday. This would supposedly ensure a higher political consciousness and “kick start the habit of a lifetime”.
I can see several problems with this straight off the bat. First off I don’t like the idea of anyone being forced to do anything. For decades people in this country fought for the right to vote in general elections; with all men being given the vote in the late 19th century, and all women in 1928. Hand in hand with this fight for the right to vote also, in my opinion, comes with the right to decline.
If this policy were to be implemented, then several things would need to change. First off, an equivalent to RON (reopen nominations) would have to be introduced onto the ballot paper. This has been knocking about for several years as people have argued that the populus should have the right to veto all of the candidates with a NOTA (none of the above) option. This would ensure that those who didn’t want to vote for anyone in particular would have their voices heard. This would be crucial if voting became inescapable. The only options at the moment to express your disgruntlement with the candidates is either to not vote (which is written off as voter apathy) or to spoil your ballot.
Secondly, political education would need to become much more prevalent in the country’s classrooms and college lecture halls. I don’t believe that everyone over 18 at the moment, with the current state of political engagement, could make an educated decision if they were forced to do so, simply because they’ve never had the necessary resources. Politics is something that other people do. I think it is for this reason, predominately, that voter turnout in the under 24s has been declining in recent decades. In the 2010 general election only 44% of under 24s exercised their right to vote, as opposed to nearly 70% in 1997.
Of course it’s a vicious cycle. The less young people turn out to vote, the less that politicians are going to try and get their votes by making positive policy for them. They’re more interested in the demographic of the population who do turnout to vote in their masses (in 2010 76% of those 65 and over voted). So, by forcing young people to the ballot box, it would ensure that candidates would have to appeal to them because the mass vote would be crucial. This would be a positive step.
Another way in which tapping into the political power of young people would be interesting is that it might break the two party swing between the Labour Party and the Conservatives. Since 1922 Downing Street has had an occupant who is the leader of one of these two parties. Perhaps by introducing the slightly more diverse political opinions of young people we would be able to shake things up. Experts have already predicted that the old patterns are breaking down, and it is highly anticipated that May 2015 will produce another hung parliament, rather than an outright majority for any party. By making young people express their opinion, would minority parties stand more of a chance?
It is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about the claim by IPPR. There’s no denying that voting is important, but I don’t believe that the way we vote currently allows room to demand that a huge section of the population be forced to vote. More options such as NOTA would have to be introduced if this were the case. If we’re going to force people to go to the ballot box, they need a way to show their disaffection with the candidates and make their “non-vote” heard. Equally more political engagement from a young age would be crucial in order to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make an informed decision.