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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 April, 2003, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
First-time voters ignored election

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

Only one in five young people eligible to vote bothered to make it to the polling booths, shows the first major research into first-time voters at the last general election.

This represents a fall of over two-thirds on estimates of young voters at the previous general election.

And political parties' efforts to attract young people to the ballot box were dismissed as "embarrassing".

Polling station
The study says that even fewer young people voted than had been estimated

The research, commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, examined attitudes to politics among young people who could vote for the first time in the 2001 general election.

And the survey shows that these young people, now in their early twenties, have little sense of connection with political parties and view them with distrust.

While there is nothing unexpected about such scepticism, this survey also shows a sharp fall in voting numbers. Even though young people have always moaned about politicians, they have traditionally still voted for them.

Researchers found that only 21% of these young people voted - even fewer than the 39% estimated by the Electoral Commission, and well below the overall general election turnout of 59%.

This was a substantial decline compared with the previous general election in 1997 - when it is estimated that 68% of 18 to 24 year olds cast their vote - and 1992, when 61% voted.

'Engaged sceptics'

Indicating why so few youngsters voted, 83% in the current survey believed that they had no influence over the political system. And few had expectations of the political process making a positive difference to them.

21% of 18 to 24 year olds voted at 2001 general election
68% of 18 to 24 year olds voted in 1997 general election
83% believe they have no influence on politics
2% belong to a party
Biggest issue: public services
53% 'interested' in politics
87% say elected parties fail to deliver

But researchers say that the findings should not be seen as reinforcing the "stereotype" of politically apathetic youngsters. Instead they say that the research reveals a picture of "engaged sceptics" - interested in politics, but deeply disenchanted with the political process.

They argue that there are signs that young people are politically engaged - and that this should "dispel the myth that they are apathetic and politically lazy".

The survey found that 53% say that they have some interest in politics, compared to only 15% who say they have no interest.

And 52% said that they would be likely to discuss a political topic with friends or family.

But the research, carried out by Nottingham Trent University, shows a clear antagonism towards the political parties and how the political process is presented.

"We have uncovered a deep antipathy to formal, professional politics amongst first-time voters.


"And it is clear who they hold responsible for this... the political parties. Politicians are clearly regarded as a group with self-serving interests in whom first-time voters have little faith or trust," the report concludes.

Youngsters saw political parties as bickering, motivated by self-interest and pursuing arguments that are irrelevant and hard to follow.

This image of political parties as out of touch and untrustworthy feeds into a low level of young people identifying with any particular party, with only 27% broadly supporting any party, 88% saying they would not give money to a party and 2% belonging to a party.

Attempts by political parties to make special efforts to communicate with younger voters were rejected as "embarrassing" and unconvincing.

This lack of involvement extends beyond politics - with only 36% expecting to become involved in any kind of voluntary, social, community or sports group.

The research also looked at the issues which young people believe to be most important - and this found concern about public services, health, education and transport, to be at the top of the agenda,

There was much less interest in topics which feature prominently in political debate - such as Europe and the euro, which concerned only 5% of young voters.

Despite the negative feelings towards political parties, there was still support for the broad democratic principles of holding elections and debating issues - even if in practice only a minority voted.

Young people vote against politics
28 Jan 03  |  Education
'Who cares who wins?'
29 Apr 02  |  England
Young 'not turned off' by politics
04 Dec 02  |  Politics

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