Guest blog by Ella Eagle Davies, research volunteer with MVM. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Make Votes Matter.

Wherever you look, young people are losing faith in the validity of UK democracy. From headlines throughout the British media environment to House of Commons research briefings, it is not difficult to find language that speaks of an age in which young adults do not care for the democratic processes of our country and lack the will to engage.

The markers that supposedly prove young people do not care are a common sight. They include falling levels of voter turnout, with 47% turnout for 18-24 year-olds compared to 74% for over 65s in 2019i, and the average age of MPs, which has remained at 50 for the past few decades and seemingly demonstrates a lack of will to get involved with political institutionsii. There is also the rise of what is often termed ‘slacktivism’, a misleading term that describes online activism that is “deemed lazy and ineffective”iii. Along with increased news media coverage of youth participation in the 2016 Brexit referendum being less than hoped, the image of young people has been distorted, becoming “citizens apart” in political spheresiv.

Of course, disconnection and apathy towards the political system is a critical issue. Low levels of participation can undermine the legitimacy of our government. Nevertheless, the youth defy stereotypes in many, often surprising ways, and we are still less likely to view politics as a waste of time when compared to our older counterpartsv. The youth are not just objects of policy, nor are we lazy. We are strikingly creative when it comes to sustaining a voice in politics and have a real potential for positive energy. We see this in our music, our culture, and our protest.

A key issue here is our electoral system, and how it creates barriers for fulfilling participation. First Past the Post is simply too outdated for our needs as young people and the way in which we ‘do politics’. It limits our capacity to spur change by reducing the diversity of electoral candidates, reducing the value of our vote based on where we live and who we vote for, and electing MPs who very few of us identify and can build a rapport with. It is time we stop the narrative that young people are lazy, and look at why our electoral system needs to change for our benefit.

A history of protest and leisure

Despite a grand total of 17.3 million people under the age of 25 living in the UK, and 18-24 year-olds standing as the most populated age group across societyvi,  young people are often absent from political institutions and formal decision-making processes, due to a deep sense of alienation from electoral politics. In particular, the decline in confidence over voting has been the greatest amongst the youth, with only 52% of those aged 18-24 believing votes are counted accuratelyvii. But this is far from new. There is a long history of alternative youth participation which demonstrates how young people have engaged politically.

One major theme in the social history of youth political engagement is our love for tying leisure to politics. The ‘teenager’ as we know it today emerged in the 1950s, with consumerist culture imported from the US drawing clothes, music, movies, and TV into the political spotlight. We are all familiar with the iconic subcultures of that time: Teddy Boys, Mods and Skinheads, Ravers and Punks, all of whom mixed culture and fashion with deviancy and resistance. “What scene do you belong to?” was the ultimate question of the era. 

Now, attention has been given to the role of social media and new technologies, with apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook generating huge volumes of politically-oriented content and allowing us to ‘live’ politics through everyday use of our phones. Lifestyle choices – vegetarianism, veganism, and ethical consumerism – are often seen as ciphers for political choices. And how could we forget music, which often intersects in the lives of young people and has become synonymous with protest and certain salient issues. Music has incredible transformative potential and allows for the principles of democratic participation to be applied in a context that speaks to young peopleviii.

It is without a doubt that in recent decades, young people’s interests have been consistently sacrificed relative to those of other age groups in society whose votes – both in number and geography – carry more weight. Our mental health has suffered and our dreams of one day buying a house quashed. However, young people today, like generations before us, continue to find ways to combine protest, politics, and leisure to make known what troubles and impacts us. Leisure provides us with freedom of choice, self-expression, and creativity. With more free time and fewer financial obligations than older age groups, we have often used leisure activities to find like-minded people and target important issues. And despite general anxiety regarding the lack of youth turnout in institutional politics, there has been a hopeful uptick in recent years, with party membership amongst 18-24s at a new high since the 2016 Brexit Referendumix.  We need now to turn our attention to how we can close the gap between our political drive and the elections that make our agendas known nationally. 

The ‘satisfaction’ question

Let us focus on our elections. For academic Robert Stebbins, the logic behind the disconnect between drive and turnout is clear: electoral politics is alienating to young people, in part because political institutions focus on the ‘grey vote’, as older age groups have a higher turnout. In contrast, politicised leisure is far more personalised and can thus resonate far more with young peoplex. However, youth apathy towards elections does not have to be inevitable and it should never be considered acceptable in a society underpinned by democracy.

I believe our electoral system, First Past the Post (FPTP), is unfair and not fitting for a modern democracy. It simply does not aim to give us a parliament that reflects all shades of opinion in our society or to deliver governments that are supported by the majority of votersxi. This is deeply unsatisfying for young voters in particular, who find better representation in minority parties and single-issue groups: so far in 2024, 18-24 year-olds are the greatest supporters of the Green Party, with polls showing up to 14% of 18-24s are planning to vote for them in the upcoming electionxii.

Politics is plagued by a vicious cycle, fueled partly by the fact that politicians can afford to ignore youth issues because of the lack of youth turnout. As such, young people are disillusioned and fail to turn up to the polling booth. But imagine a system where minor parties can play a critical role in decision-making. Parties that represent your interests, from environmentalism, to LGBTQ+ representation, to the important issues of your local area. National politics and major parties often drown out the issues that matter to us, polarising and paralysing our communities. With more parties and wider voter choice, problems that are often relegated to political leisure and protest can be considered as important in elections. 

In other words, we need a more plural, representative politics. For that, we need to change how our elections work. Proportional Representation (PR) is an alternative electoral system in which the share of parliamentary seats a party wins accurately reflects the share of votes it receives. Ultimately, PR could give young people more control over our representatives and the ideological composition of their parties. With a youth population that maintains a relatively strong sense of political responsibility, but is disillusioned by the lack of representation for their concerns, I believe a PR system would be a definite and much needed step forward.


i British Election Study, various years.
ii Commons Library Research Briefing, 21 November 2022. Political disengagement in the UK: Who is disengaged?https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7501/
iii Open Society Foundations, 30 April 2012. Five Reasons Not to Use the Word “Slacktivism”. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/five-reasons-not-use-word-slacktivism
iv
Lee, j. et al., 2023. Citizens apart? Representing post-Brexit youth politics in the UK media in The Geographical Journal. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/377018061_Citizens_apart_Representing_post-Brexit_youth_politics_in_the_UK_media
v
Commons Library Research Briefing, 21 November 2022. Political disengagement in the UK: Who is disengaged? https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7501/
vi
Gov.uk, 31 March 2023. Ethnicity Facts and Figures: Age groups. https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/uk-population-by-ethnicity/demographics/age-groups/latest/
vii
The Electoral Commission, 11 December 2023. Public Attitudes 2023.
viii
Lawrence Becko, September 2014. Youth participation through music. Sound Connections.https://rewired.sound-connections.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Youth-Participation-Through-Music-PDF.pdf
ix
Pickard S., 2017. Politically Engaged Leisure in Angles. https://journals.openedition.org/angles/1252
x
Stebbins, R., 2012. The Idea of Leisure: First principles. https://www.routledge.com/The-Idea-of-Leisure-First-Principles/Stebbins/p/book/9781138516090
xi
For more information, see https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/first-past-the-post
xii
YouGov, 30 January 2024. How is Britain voting as we enter the election year? https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/48476-how-is-britain-voting-as-we-enter-the-2024-election-year