Guest blog: Stuart Fox – Young people won’t vote tomorrow, and older people will – but we won’t notice the difference…

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Tomorrow the country will head to the polls to vote in the European elections. As far as most voters and the media is concerned, the outcome of the election will have much more significance for domestic politics than European. The campaign has been dominated – as will the days and weeks following the election – by speculation about what the results mean not for the European Parliament, but for the electoral fortunes of the major parties in the 2015 General Election.

But not everybody is going to be taking part in tomorrow’s vote. According to the British Election Study’s rolling panel survey, almost a third of British citizens say they are very unlikely to vote in the European election. As always, this applies to some groups of people more than others – and as always, it is the young who are the least likely to turn up and vote: 49% of under 26s say that they are unlikely to vote in the election, a figure which drops with age until reaching 14% among the over 75s. As is usually the case in elections, the polling stations tomorrow will see far more pensioners than students casting their ballots.

Given this disparity we might expect young people to lose out when the votes are counted. There are certainly notable differences in the vote preferences of the different age groups. If we look at the vote choices of respondents to the BES (see Table 1 below), we see that the under 25s are more supportive of Labour (by 6%) and the Greens (by 5%) than the over 75s, who tend to prefer UKIP and the Conservatives (by 21% and 14% respectively). The differences aren’t huge, but they are significant. If the number of older voters who turn up tomorrow far outstrips the number of younger voters – as seems likely – then young people may find that their preferred parties fare less well as a result, while the preferences of the older voters benefit

Table 1: Vote preferences for European election by age group

Party 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65-74 75+
Conservative 14% 16% 15% 16% 18% 23% 28%
Labour 26% 25% 25% 25% 23% 22% 20%
Lib Dem 6% 5% 5% 5% 5% 5% 4%
UKIP 9% 9% 12% 19% 22% 25% 30%
Green 7% 6% 5% 3% 3% 2% 2%
BNP 1% 1% 1% 1% 1% 0% 1%
Other 7% 8% 9% 9% 9% 6% 6%
Don’t Know 29% 31% 27% 22% 19% 15% 10%

 

Source: British Election Study 2015 rolling panel survey – data excludes those who chose not to select a party as they would not vote

Or perhaps they won’t. If we look at what happens to these estimates of party support once we account for the proportion of people in each age group who say they are likely to vote, we actually see that the final outcome is not all that different. Table 2 shows what happens if we compare the vote share of the parties based on the preferences of the BES respondents compared with those same preferences if we account for the proportion of people in each age group who say they are likely to vote. This is an admittedly crude way of accounting for differences in turnout across the age groups, and obviously does not take account of other factors which might be important, such as campaigning effects or the weather. But it does still give us a glimpse of what the consequences might be of so many young people choosing not to vote while their elders flock to the polling station.

Table 2: Effect of anticipated likelihood of voting on expected vote share

Party % Vote share based on party PREFERENCE % Vote share based on likely voters¹ % Difference
Conservative 18.0% 18.4% 0.4%
Labour 23.7% 23.5% -0.2%
Lib Dem 5.4% 5.3% 0.0%
UKIP 18.2% 19.1% 0.9%
Green 3.9% 3.6% -0.2%

 

Source: British Election Study 2015 rolling panel survey – data excludes those who chose not to select a party as they would not vote

The effect is negligible: on average, accounting for uneven turnout across age groups shifts party vote shares by no more than 0.3%. There are some who benefit while others lose out; UKIP, for example, whose support is concentrated among older voters, see an increase of 0.9% in their vote share. The Conservatives also gain, while Labour and the Greens – who have more young supporters than old – both lose out by 0.2%.

Such differences are not insignificant – on the basis of the turnout in the 2009 European elections, 0.3% of the vote represented just over 50,000 voters, and if concentrated in a single region of the UK this shift could have led to a party losing or gaining one more seat – but they are not drastic enough to affect the overall result either. One more seat, or a shift in vote share of 0.3%, or even 0.9%, will not make a big difference to the likely outcome of this election.

So young people needn’t be too worried that they will lose out because so many of them won’t be voting while most of the over 75s do – the likely vote shares of the parties will be the same. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t notable differences in the party preferences of young people and older people, nor that they don’t have different policy demands. It certainly doesn’t mean that voting is irrelevant, or that it isn’t a cause for concern that so many young people choose not to take part in elections. But it does mean that when the votes are counted following tomorrows election, and the media frenzy over what it will all mean for 2015 begins, there will likely be no need to lament the lower turnout of the young. Older people might vote more, but their preferences won’t dominate.

Stuart Fox, Doctoral Researcher, School of Politics and International Relations University of Nottingham

¹This is calculated by multiplying the number of votes for each party in each age group by the proportion of people who report being likely to vote in that age group e.g. 51.45% of 18-24 year olds report being likely to vote in the election, so the number of votes for each party among the 18-24 year old BES respondents is multiplied by 0.5145.

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