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					FIRST-TIME VOTERS’ ATTITUDES TOWARDS PARTY POLITICS IN BRITAIN
Matt Henn and Mark Weinstein, Nottingham Trent University March 2003

SUMMARY – KEY FINDINGS
Following the outcome of the 2001 General Election, when the numbers of abstainers outweighed the numbers of Labour voters, much attention has been focussed upon the state of British democracy, and how to enthuse the electorate. While the government is exploring ways to make the whole process of voting easier with ideas such as voting over the telephone and the Internet - it may be failing to tackle the real problem. The main challenge is that many young people appear to find the business of politics uninviting and irrelevant to their everyday lives. This is the first large-scale British study to focus exclusively on attainers – young people eligible to vote for the first-time and who have only limited experience of formal politics. The findings from the survey reveal that these young people are not as apathetic when it comes to “Politics” as conventional wisdom would have us believe. Instead a picture is emerging of a British youth keen to play a more active role in the political process, but who are turned off by politicians and the political parties. This briefing paper presents an overview of:  Young people‟s interest in politics and elections.  Young people‟s attitudes towards democracy in Britain.  What first-time voters think about party politics:  What “politics” means to them.  What the political parties need to do if they are to engage young people.

INTRODUCTION
Conventional wisdom suggests that young people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics and the democratic system - a number of recent indicators suggest that young people are less politically engaged than older age cohorts. For instance, while turnout at the 2001 General Election amongst the electorate as a whole sunk to a post-war low of just 59%, only 39% of young people voted. Through examining the way in which first-time voters view political parties, we were able to gain important insights into whether or not there is a crisis of democratic legitimacy in Britain.

METHODOLOGY
We conducted a national postal survey of 705 attainers (18 year olds eligible to vote for the first-time), focusing upon their perceptions and levels of attachment to the democratic process in general, and to party politics in particular. The survey was designed to yield a representative national sample of these first-time voters from across England, Scotland and Wales, with respondents drawn from the electoral register using a random probability selection method. Not every attainer would have been captured by this research - indeed, approximately 15% of first-time voters are not registered to vote. Nonetheless, the vast majority of our target group were eligible for inclusion.

This briefing paper is not to be quoted without the authors’ permission.

FIRST-TIME VOTERS‟ ATTITUDES TOWARDS PARTY POLITICS IN BRITAIN

RESULTS Political Engagement
Our research reveals evidence that, far from being apolitical and apathetic, young people are interested in political issues:
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below clearly indicates that these young people considered Politics to be about “Government” (25%), “How the country is run” (19%), “Talking, debates and arguing” (7%), and “People who take decisions on our behalf ” (6%). However, an examination of the actual written responses from which these statistics have been derived, reveals that young people‟s characterisation of “Politics” was broadly negative in orientation – by defining Politics as something that occurs elsewhere, by others, involving argument and debate, the young people who responded meant that they considered Politics to be an activity carried out by unrepresentative and self-serving politicians, who operated at a distance from the lives of the general public. The following are typical of the responses given:  Being honest, it does bore me mostly, because the government is so corrupt, unless something significant or interesting is going on I don’t pay attention (I don’t understand most of it anyway).  The government. Middle aged men in suits who make decisions concerning all sorts of things often in a biased way.

When asked about politics in general, 56% of respondents replied that they had some or more interest in the topic (which compares with 13% who had none at all).

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Nearly half of the young people who took part in our survey (48%) said that they were interested in the General Election held in June 2001 (only 17% had no interest at all) We found that a majority (54%) considered that they would discuss politics with friends and family in the future.

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These results seem to run counter to popular thinking that young people are dismissive of political matters. However, the degree of interest in politics revealed by our survey results is perhaps even more surprising, given that young people appear to hold rather negative views as to what Politics means in practice. We grouped their written answers to an „open‟ question, „When people talk about ‘Politics’, what does that mean to you exactly?‟. Figure 1

Figure 1: What is Politics?
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owsd t k n oue 't n e s re onll ae Dc eni t ting s o ig/u i n & v ns rM Bo ns ci a ti o i l it ec po El al r ai ic Bl yn C ny s To ie 's/ art P p M al ic l it tg in Po en gu s ar e am t rl i a ss b la e s Pe d se & xe U ng ta i lk & Ta my i ntgy kn r o on ma u o Ec ione c is th t ec g n Dni en m un rn ve go
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This briefing paper is not to be quoted without the authors’ permission.

FIRST-TIME VOTERS‟ ATTITUDES TOWARDS PARTY POLITICS IN BRITAIN

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I don’t really take much notice, but I guess politics means middle-aged men (elite) who try to run the country. Politics is for a selected group of people. A group of people trying to run the country. Sometimes they’re good at it and most of the time it seems they are just trying to make money for themselves.

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and a noticeable minority (13%) prioritised concerns about wars and militarism, solidarity with the third

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world, animal rights, and environmental protection. These results seem to contradict the conventional view that young people take little interest in political affairs. Nonetheless, survey respondents lacked confidence that they know as much about politics as they would like:  a majority agreed (53%) that they don‟t know enough
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Given this, it‟s not surprising that 12% defined politics as “boring and uninteresting” (see Fig. 1). Despite their scepticism of how “Politics” is conducted and managed, young people are interested in political affairs. As a further indicator of their level of political engagement, we asked an open question - what was the single most important issue to them at the moment. A surprisingly high 88% answered this question. The responses were generally quite detailed and sophisticated, demonstrating a particular engagement with political and current affairs. Figure 2 indicates that their agenda is a broad one, which embraces a wide spectrum of concerns:  Nearly half of our sample prioritised concerns over the public services (health 28%, education 14%, transport 4%),
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about what is going on in politics (24% disagreed); the same number (53%) lacked confidence that they knew enough about political parties when it comes to deciding how to vote at election times (44% claimed to be confident about this matter);

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over half (55%) found it difficult to understand what is going on in government and politics (25% disagreed).

Combining these three questions, we found overall that 60% lacked confidence about their knowledge and understanding of British politics, with only 34% having confidence in such matters. These data suggest that for whatever reason, the message about British political life and political affairs is not being effectively communicated to young people.

nearly a fifth (19%) mentioned traditional “materialist” issues (economic matters, Europe, crime and law and order),

Figure 2: Issues of Most Concern
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This briefing paper is not to be quoted without the authors’ permission.

al ci So

FIRST-TIME VOTERS‟ ATTITUDES TOWARDS PARTY POLITICS IN BRITAIN
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Political power and influence Furthermore, the data from our survey indicate that young people do not feel that they can influence the decisionmaking process. Comparing the percentages of those who agreed with those who disagreed on a number of statements concerning this matter, the data reveal that first-time voters felt relatively powerless, politically:
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Be active in a voluntary organisation, like a community association, a charity group, or sports club (36% likely: 39% unlikely). Try to convince someone else how to vote (20% likely: 65% unlikely - although this indicates that a sizeable core do consider that political parties are worthy of support).

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The government generally treats young people fairly (23% agreed: disagreed 42%). There is a big gap between what young people expect out of life and what we actually get (64% agreed: disagreed 12%). Being active in politics is a good way to get help for me and my family (15% agreed: disagreed 41%). It takes too much time and effort to be active in politics and public affairs (36% agreed: disagreed 30%). Young people like me have no say in what the government does (62% agreed: disagreed 21%). There aren‟t enough opportunities for young people like me to influence political parties (71% agreed: disagreed 7%).

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An overwhelmingly large majority of respondents considered that they had little or no influence on politics and political affairs (82%, compared to only 3% who felt they had any influence at all).

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Confidence in the Democratic Process Despite feelings of general political powerlessness, young people do appear to have faith in the democratic process itself, and are generally supportive of the notion of elections – the key means open for people to formally participate in politics. The data reveal that more people said they were satisfied (31%) than were dissatisfied (26%) with the way democracy works (although 28% held an ambivalent “Neither Satisfied Nor Dissatisfied” view). Table 1 reports the ratio of agreed: disagreed percentage responses to a series of questions about elections, and indicates that young people do have a general attachment to and confidence in the democratic process. Combining a number of these questions into a single index of attitudes to elections, we find that half (51%) believe in the electoral process, against 35% who hold more sceptical views. These findings broadly suggest that young people consider that elections do matter. However, they recognise that elections as a method of democratic participation are limited, and they are broadly sceptical that the outcomes from elections are positive:  A large majority (60%) claimed that elections don‟t
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By combining the results of several questions, we were able to create an index that demonstrated that only 12% considered there existed meaningful opportunities open to them to influence the political scene, while seven times as many young people (84%) claimed to lack such influence. Respondents were then asked how likely it was that they might take part in various types of political activity over the next few years. From the responses given, there is little evidence to support the notion that young people consider political activity to have value in terms of increasing their political influence:  Work actively with a group of people to address a public issue or tackle a problem (16% likely: 60% unlikely).
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really change anything (only 22% dissented). Almost twice as many (44%) disagreed than agreed (28%) that by voting they could really help to change the way that Britain is governed. Young people were just as likely to agree (42%) as disagree (36%) that elections help to keep politicians accountable for the promises they make. However, that this suggests that almost 4 out of 10 young people disagreed that this key principle of representative government actually works in practice, is a stark indictment of the ability of the system to win the confidence of young citizens.

Participate in a protest, like a rally or a demonstration, to show your concern about a public issue or problem (18% likely: 63% unlikely – although this indicates that a sizeable group would take part in such action).
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Those who responded “Don‟t Know” were added to the “Neither Agreed Nor Disagreed” group, as waverers; the latter group are excluded from these and subsequent analyses of the data so that we can more easily compare the responses of those who hold directional views.
This briefing paper is not to be quoted without the authors’ permission.

FIRST-TIME VOTERS‟ ATTITUDES TOWARDS PARTY POLITICS IN BRITAIN

Furthermore, a sizeable minority of respondents harbour suspicions that real political power resides outside of Westminster - 16% agreed that elections don‟t matter, because its big international companies that have real power, not elected governments (47% disagreed). And more young people considered that big international companies were a threat to democratic government (32%) than thought differently (25%).

Respondents were very positive about voting in future elections:
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General election – 67% intending to vote: 16% not intending to vote; Local election – 47% intending to vote: 32% not to; European Assembly election – 37% intending to vote: 38% not to.

Perception of political parties and professional

Table 1: Support for the Democratic Process
All things considered, most elections are just a big waste of time and money. Having regular elections forces politicians to listen carefully to public opinion. I feel/would feel a sense of satisfaction when I vote. I would be seriously neglecting my duty as a citizen if I didn‟t vote. I would only vote in an election if I cared who won. Agree 24% Disagree 49%

politicians Not surprisingly, young people have a relatively low level of party identification (28%, compared to those 59% who report that they do not identify with a political party), and other findings within the study support the view that they have little confidence in political parties and professional politicians. Our results tend to reinforce those from a number of previous studies that show an apparent disconnection from party politics – in many cases this is very noticeable indeed. Perhaps not surprisingly:
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51%

27%

44% 43%

22% 32%

47%

30%
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89% report that they would not be prepared to give money to a political party 84% report that they would not be prepared to work for a political party in an election campaign only 2% report that they are a party member.

Significantly, while these findings indicate that young people believe, on balance, that elections do matter, they also consider by a large majority that other methods of political participation - such as protest politics and direct action - are important and justified:
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Young people appear to hold deeply sceptical views of political parties and of elected politicians, and of the way that they conduct their activities:
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70% agreed that it is right to allow people to organise meetings to protest against the government, with only 8% in disagreement; Marginally more respondents (by 27% to 25%) thought that being involved in groups like Greenpeace or the Countryside Alliance is a better way of influencing government than being active in a political party – with 5% in strong agreement.

There is often a big difference between what a party promises it will do and what it actually does when it wins an election - agreed 87%: disagreed 3% (with

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nearly half, 41%, in strong agreement). Political parties are more interested in winning elections than in governing afterwards (agreed 69%: disagreed 13%).

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The main political parties in Britain don‟t offer voters real choices in elections because their policies are pretty much all the same (agreed 48%: disagreed

A fifth (21%) of our sample of young people claimed to have voted at the 2001 General Election (although not all of these attainers were eligible to vote by the time of the June General Election). Of these, the largest group (50%) did so on the basis of party policies, whilst 9% voted in line with family tradition. Interestingly, more people cast their vote in support of a local candidate (9%) than for a party leader (7%). Revealingly, 10% reported that they „don‟t know‟ why they voted for their chosen party.
This briefing paper is not to be quoted without the authors’ permission. 

22%). Political parties do more to divide the country than unite it (agreed 41%: disagreed 24%).

FIRST-TIME VOTERS‟ ATTITUDES TOWARDS PARTY POLITICS IN BRITAIN
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Political parties spend too much time bickering with each other (agreed 76%: disagreed 9% - with 30% in strong agreement, and only 0.9% strongly disagreeing).

Re-connecting young people: The challenge for political parties We asked an open question in order to find out what might be done to reverse young people‟s antipathy to the political parties and professional politicians. The responses were typified in the following answers, which signalled very clearly that the main challenge was for the parties to reach out to young people in a direct, meaningful and non-patronising way:  I believe they should INFORM young people about what’s going on. I think a lot of people like me have absolutely no idea about what’s going on. The parties should talk to us and explain what they believe is right. Us teenagers don’t bite!  Stop pretending they care about us and genuinely care. Rather than being fake with us, they could genuinely regard our opinions as important as middle class 40 year olds.  I detest cheap stunts – like wearing baseball caps or being an Oasis fan – but simply believe members of political parties should meet young people and listen to and take on board their views and concerns.

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In elections, political parties don‟t tell people about the really important problems facing the country (agreed 50%: disagreed 21%).

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Political parties aren‟t interested in the same issues that concern young people (agreed 59%: disagreed 10%).

Furthermore, the majority of survey respondents consider that the political parties are remote, and not capable of effectively connecting with young people:
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It‟s embarrassing when the parties try to appeal to young people during election campaigns (agreed 44%: disagreed 26%). Political parties do a good job of listening to young people‟s concerns, and then responding to them positively (7%: 63%). Governments don‟t really care what young people like me think (39%: 26%). Those elected to parliament soon lose touch with people (59%: 12%). Parties are only interested in people‟s votes, not in their opinions (65%: 14% – with 21% in strong agreement).

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Figure 3: The challenge for political parties?
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s ou ne ll a ce is M w oble s kn i 'tos cs onp li ti Dt no p o ts l s y It' ti f du ys e a em lik D P es rt i tY pa ea in Tr P P Y Y e ce or en M flu in e P or M rY fo s ie l ic Po YP to en st Li n io t at ac uc nt Ed t co c ire
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This briefing paper is not to be quoted without the authors’ permission.

FIRST-TIME VOTERS‟ ATTITUDES TOWARDS PARTY POLITICS IN BRITAIN

Figure 3 categorises these open responses, and confirms that over six in ten first-time voters consider that the political parties should do more to connect with young people, by making direct contact (26%), listening to young people (21%), and providing clearer information about their programmes and policy positions (10%) – and in a less mystifying and more engaging manner (5%). Clearly, for young people to be brought back into the democratic fold, political parties will need to reflect seriously on how they approach them in the future.

therefore, is that young people in Britain today are engaged sceptics. If this generation is to become more politically engaged, then the main political parties must take a more positive and proactive approach in their attempts to connect with young people. This group are much more likely to respond to approaches from the political parties that are more direct, participative and transparent, in which it is possible for young people to gauge the extent to which their voices have been heard, listened to, and acted upon.

CONCLUSION
The data suggest that our young respondents are sufficiently interested in political affairs to dispel the myth that they are apathetic and politically lazy – they have a clear interest in a range of political issues. Furthermore, there is a civic orientation amongst the young to the democratic process: representative democracy is generally seen to be a very good thing, and the young people who have participated in this study clearly signify their desire to be able to play a more active (and even) role within it. Yet, our study has uncovered a group who indicate that „politics‟ is remote and inaccessible, with few channels open to them to influence the political process. As a result, they feel relatively powerless, politically. Unfortunately for this group, their strong attachment to the idea of competitive elections does not correspond to the experience of their first real election; the actuality plainly doesn‟t match up to the promise. In tracing their first participation in the 2001 General Election, 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 selfserving interests, in whom attainers have little faith or trust. All the evidence from our study points towards a group of young people who are interested in matters “political”, yet consider themselves at a distance from where the key decisions affecting their lives are taken. And those charged with governing on their behalf are perceived as self-serving, unrepresentative, and unresponsive to the demands of young people. The conclusion that we must draw from these findings,
This briefing paper is not to be quoted without the authors’ permission.

THE RESEARCH
This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, award R000223598, and we would like to thank them for their support. We would also like to express our thanks to Rob Vickers and Neil Conant at Nottingham Trent University, both for their preparation of the data and for their general contribution to the project. Matt Henn is a Principal Lecturer in Social Research, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham NG1 4BU. Telephone, (0115) 848 5552; Email, matt.henn@ntu.ac.uk Mark Weinstein is a Senior Lecturer in Social Research, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham NG1 4BU. Telephone, (0115) 848 5518; Email, mark.weinstein@ntu.ac.uk Further information about this project and about the people involved can be found on the project web site at: http://www.ess.ntu.ac.uk/esrcyouth/


				
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