Low Youth Voter Turnout and the Warwick Study

18 – 25

As Richard has highlighted on his TRUK blog there is a low youth turn out in the UK. Here I discuss a study by the University of Warwick. According to the study:

“Britain has the worst youth voter turnout problem in the OECD. At the last general election, there was a 37 percentage point gap between over-55 and under-35 turnout. This is the biggest gap in the OECD, and it is worse than the second-worst by a long way: British young adults appear to be unusually turned off by the democratic process. At a national and European level, younger generations of British citizens risk being short-changed by policy makers as a result of their absence from the ballot box, and there is no indication that their turnout will improve as they get older”.

This is shown rather dramatically in Figure 1 where the UK is clearly an outlier. Needless to say this is not good and had disastrous consequences for example in the Brexit vote where younger voters were strongly Remain and Older Voters Leave. It is also the case that young voters are far more likely to support Progressive parties rather than the Torys. Younger citizens have been treated very badly in terms of housing, quality of jobs and fees for university education for example.

Figure 1 Difference in voting rates between those 55+ years old and those 16-35 years old (percentage points)

This appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, Warwick plot the turnout in subsequent General Elections which shows that up to 1992 the gap was smaller at around 10 percentage points, but has dropped since.

Figure 2 Weighted Average Turnout of 18-34 year olds and older age groups by General Election.

The Warwick group then try to analyse why people vote and it seems that the most important factor is belief in democracy rather than personal gain. Figure 3 below shows factors analysed by social scientists, with the size of the ‘weights’ roughly corresponding to what the literature has to say about their importance.

Figure 3 Factors that determine the decision whether or not to vote

The study identifies four areas which make one more likely to vote. To me, at least, none of this is surprising and the last two almost a statement of the obvious:

  • level of education: The more educated an individual is, the higher is the likelihood that they will vote.
  • Level of affluence (income and wealth ): The more affluent the individual, the higher is the likelihood that they will vote.

The best educated older people are more than twice as likely to vote as less educated young people.

  • Political Knowledge: The more the individual knows about politics, the politicians/parties and their platforms, the higher is the likelihood they will vote.
  • Engagement in Electoral Politics : The more engaged the individual is with elections and electoral politics, the higher the likelihood they will vote.

On the most important question as to why younger voters are less likely to vote the study is fairly silent and indicates more work needs to be done to identify the cause.

I have been in contact with Prof Abhinay Muthoo who is the lead academic on the study and has asked for a link when the article is published. Hopefully he will be able to comment as appropriate.


  1. Noel Scoper -

    This doesn’t make sense, arguments against voting are weak. I live in Hong Kong and I can register to vote in 2 minutes on line the same as anyone in the UK. Choosing how to vote is effortless (young people typically vote labour otherwise this site wouldn’t be pushing for them to vote) and the cost is zero in time and cost if you vote by post, a very little by time if you do go to a polling station on the day. Labour has done very well out of postal votes for years so that can’t be an argument. I have to pay postage to post my vote (although that’s less than UK first class postage from here so something goes awry there!).

  2. Peter May -

    I wonder if poor voter turnout isn’t just an indication of the debt and despair of so many. Also perhaps the old idea that if voting changed anything they’d have made it illegal, because there is no doubt that in First Past the Post Britain has one of the most unresponsive voting systems created. It is very easy to conclude (and often correctly) that a vote doesn’t matter.
    Pity we are so expert at writing other country’s constitutions but useless at looking after our own.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed in my own constituency Hexham a pig in a Tory rosette would romp home. On a ward level at the local elections the Torys got c 1200 votes and Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens about 130 voters each. There were millions of people who voted at the Brexit referendum who wouldn’t bother normally as they felt that they had a voice; most voted Leave.

      I’m a great believer in PR and my preference would be the single transferable vote system. I will vote in the General Election but unless one lives in a marginal it is easy to believe there is little point. An article in the Mirror http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/general-election-results-just-900-5682492 showed that if 901 people voted Labour rather than Tory at the last general election in the key marginals then the Torys would have had no overall majority.

  3. Peda Nt -

    Minor item, but the caption for Figure 1 is extremely disorienting. Reading the surrounding text it appears that the graph is actually something along the lines of “Gap between over-55 and under-35 turnout at recent elections, by country” — though it’s a real struggle to find anything on Warwick’s site to justify that, so I’m slightly at a loss as to how you realised this is what the graph is about: you’ve correctly transcribed the copy-and-paste error Warwick themselves made on the original graph…

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Hi Peda
      thanks. Good point; I was also unsure and made an “educated” guess. As mentioned before Prof Muthoo is fully aware the article was being published today; indeed he has already suggested a minor change this morning which has been implemented. Hopefully he or one of his team can clarify.

  4. Abhinay Muthoo -

    Thanks Peda, Thanks Sean – quick reply as rushing right now, to say will clarify the first figure above tomorrow. best abhinay

  5. Abhinay Muthoo -

    Hi Peda
    Sorry for the slow response – just been a bit busy. Anyway, got a chance to check things, and noticed that you are of course correct. The top figure above is of course the difference in voting rates between those 55+ years old and those 16-35 years old (percentage points). Thanks for picking this up. have corrected it too on the webpage.
    all best, abhinay

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks to both Abhinay and Peda. I have now corrected the figure caption.

Comments are closed.