Whilst recently writing a pretty standard essay for my German class, I came across something that caught my attention and got me thinking. Conveniently relevant, the essay revolved around political apathy in Germany, but the title also referenced the turnout for our last general election (which stood at around 65%). Straight away it was clear that our two countries differ greatly when it comes to politics, and their respective interests in the matter, as the turnout for Germany’s 2013 federal election was a 71%.
Although the 6% may not seem too significant, I think it is worth mentioning that before German reunification federal elections enjoyed turnouts of between 80 and 90%; the addition of 16 million people, many of whom had never experienced democracy in their lives, was sure to have a negative effect on the level of political participation. More significantly, after doing further research into the voting tendencies of different age groups, I saw that in 2009 62% of Germans aged between 18-25 turned up and voted, a significantly higher figure than in Britain a year later (50% of 18-24 year olds). The young vote is always notoriously low in elections, but it has fallen significantly in recent years, especially in the UK. Whilst in the 60s around three-quarters of young people were sure to make their voices heard, this hit an all-time low of a miniscule 38% in 2005.
Interested to see whether there were any stark contrasts between the politics in either of our countries that could conclusively explain the difference in the attitude of young people to politics, it seemed necessary first to decide why so many young people abstain (either actively or passively) from voting. One complaint that is frequently voiced by my generation is that ‘politics isn’t relevant to us’ or ‘the politics and policies don’t appeal to young voters’. Whilst this is a difficult issue to address, as party policies, especially at the time of a general election, need to be suited to the whole country, and parties can’t afford to write out policies designed specifically for every demographic from which they receive vote, the age of the MPs who represent us certainly changes the outlook of the voter.
As I said, the turnout among the youngest group of voters is significantly higher in Germany than it is here, and the average age of an MP is 8 years younger (42 compared to 50 in the UK). To me this seems significant, in that when young people are represented by people more aligned with themselves, they are more likely to vote. Now this is only one issue surrounding apathy amongst young people, but I feel as though it is something that, over the next few elections, could certainly change for the better. A bit more research shows again why Germany is doing it better than us; the average age for their politicians is only one year different to the average age of their population, whereas ours is 11 years older. In a representative democracy, surely it is important to make sure that the democracy is actually representative (much, much more could be said about the lack of women or ethnic minorities in parliament). It is easy to see why politicians are viewed as old and outdated.
The dilemma is how we go about improving the situation. Obviously, if MPs are representing their constituents well and retaining support come election time, then there is really little call to sacrifice their political experience and wisdom in favour of a younger candidate. But if the re-election of the older candidates subsequently discourages younger voters from turning out, then it is not surprising to see older candidates being elected, as their core support will make up a higher proportion of those voting in their constituency. I’m not necessarily offering a solution to the problem, I just thought that this was an interesting correlation that might be of some significance.
Maybe the big parties will pick up on this as well, and try to encourage younger people to stand for Parliament, if it wins them the support of first-time voters and others in that younger age bracket.