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What Explains the Patterns of Political Disengagement Among Young People in the UK?

The salience of this particular question is articulated well by Almond and Verba as they note that civic culture and political participation are essential for a healthy democracy. Aside from the decline in voter turnout, there is a pervasive and tangible sense of general mistrust of politicians and the centralised Westminster model of governance.

Young people in Britain are increasingly turning to alternative forms of political engagement over more traditional forms of political behaviour which has led to increasing doubts about the legitimacy of the incumbent Conservative government. Indeed, the riots that followed the 2015 General Election serve to demonstrate the precarious nature of British politics in its current state and highlight the need to examine the underlying causes of this increasing political disengagement.

Low self-efficacy among younger generations can no doubt be seen as a key factor contributing to the decline in participation via traditional political means such as voting. This lack of faith in their capacity to influence political outcome through behaviour such as voting leads to a disenchanted generation, and one with little belief in the legitimacy of the governing party. The lack of proportionality present in the ‘First Past the Post’ electoral system has led to a frustrated but non-politically apathetic young generation of voters. These individuals turn to alternative methods of participation in a bid to get their voices heard on the main political stage.

The weaknesses of the FPTP system were first noted in 1951 by Vernon Bogdanor who drew attention to the fact that the Conservative party gained a majority of 17 seats in parliament despite the fact that they gained one point less than Labour. The FPTP voting system wastes a substantial number of votes either by making extra votes for the winning candidate irrelevant or making votes cast for the losing candidate irrelevant. This lack of direct translation of votes into outcomes leads to low self-efficacy amongst the electorate.

The aftermath of the 2015 UK General Election best illustrates the salience of low self-efficacy in contributing to general political disenchantment. Statistics have demonstrated that the FPTP system has allowed for the least proportional result to occur in the country’s history during the latest General Election. Data provided by the Electoral Reform Society demonstrated that 24.2% of seats in parliament are now held by MPs who would not be there if a proportional voting system were in place. As Katie Ghose, chief executive of the ERS, said: “This election is the nail in the coffin for our voting system. First past the post was designed for a time when nearly everyone voted for one of the two biggest parties. But people have changed and our system cannot cope.”

Disillusionment with the current political voting system is validated by the post-election austerity protests. The turn to alternative methods of political participation, and in particular ones existing outside the Westminster system, supports the low self-efficacy thesis. Younger generations see their interests to be better represented by alternative forms of political participation. In an era of party policy convergence, partisan de-alignment, and the rise of new social movements, standard voting does not suffice to satisfy the increasingly political aware younger generations. Between 70,000 and 150,000 people are thought to have marched on the streets of London, along with other demonstrations in Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. This was a reaction to David Cameron’s unexpected majority in the election and the austerity measures that would follow as a result of his party’s governance. Not only is this a clear indication of a turn towards alternative methods of political participation but it also demonstrates the increasing importance of new social movement. This very protest was organised by ‘The People’s Assembly Against Austerity’. This movement along with others such as ‘38 degrees’ draw in vast membership figures largely by defining themselves as separate from the current ‘unfair system’. They are seen as offering a voice to those who feel unheard and act as an alternative access point to central government, outside of the Westminster party system.

Finally, the rise in the use of social media and the internet have provided young people with an alternative platform to express political opinions and arguably exert more pressure on government than traditional voting would. The capacity of the internet to act as an agenda setter, and its role in mobilising non-governmental groupings across the globe verifies this.

The powerful transnational ties generated via social media, and the creation of global movements like ‘Anonymous’ and the rise of internet hacktivism all present a challenge to not only to the British government, but governments across the world.

Vamosi drew attention to the substantial impact of young social activists committing online crime. He notes a particular case where nearly 3,000 activists attacked Paypal, Mastercard and Visa for severing ties with wikileaks, in so called ‘Operation Payback’. Following this, a dozen people between the ages of 19 and 24 were arrested.

This utilisation of technology to make a political statement demonstrates young people’s alienation from standard forms of political engagement and their turn towards alternatives. Indeed the very origins of the hacktivist movement began with ‘Hactivismo’, a group that supports the freedom of information and created software to circumvent Internet censorship. This set the precedence for the utilisation of new technology to place pressure on governments and avoid giving certain policy choices legitimacy.

This in Britain is supported further by the use of new communication technologies via the internet during the student led mass demonstrations in 2010. The occupation network was characterised by its informality and its use of “the online realm as an informational space where students could formulate, develop and distribute demands…without any external interference from the authorities or the mainstream media”.

The twitter account used by the occupation network gained 15,000 followers in just 5 days which triggered intense media attention further illustrating the substantial link between self-efficacy and the utilisation of alternative forms of political engagement.

Young people increasingly believe themselves to be much more capable of influencing and pressurising governments through alternative forms of political participation. The significant capacity of the Internet to bypass traditional media outlets, set the political agenda and act as a tool of mobilisation makes it increasingly more attractive, when compared to the slow process of voting.

Author Biography

Bulkies Abeidah is currently a student of Politics and International Relations, at Royal Holloway University of London, with an interest in Middle Eastern Politics, Human Rights, Foreign Policy and Counter-terrorism.

You can find her on Linkedin

*Cover image ‘May 5: Vote‘ by John Keane


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