In 2024, the 'year of elections', persuading young voters to have faith in democracy will be a vital task – Joyce McMillan

Young people’s cynicism about party politics must be music to the ears of the wealthy and powerful who oppose interference by democratically elected politicians

The year 2024 lurches over the horizon, bringing with it not only devastating wars and rumours of wars but, paradoxically, an extraordinary year of elections. Among the nations set to vote on their national leadership in 2024 are not only the United States and the UK, but several emerging giants of global politics including India, South Africa and Mexico.

Also voting will be Indonesia, Pakistan, and Taiwan, and elections of a sort will take place even under the oppressive regimes of Iran and Russia. EU voters will also elect a new European Parliament in 2024; so that overall, almost a quarter of the world’s population will have an opportunity to vote in national or transnational elections over the coming year – perhaps, at least in principle, a sign of progress in itself.

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When it comes to the possible results of those elections, though, and the turnout they’re likely to attract, the signs are less encouraging; and it’s increasingly difficult not to feel that these hard-won and once-prized democratic processes are becoming fragile and embattled, in a world where the idea that voting changes nothing has become rife.

Particularly worrying, in democracies across the West, is the lack of enthusiasm for electoral democracy among younger people, now, in many countries, locked into a cycle of low participation in elections, which in turn encourages a mainstream politics focussed on the concerns and interests of older people, from which the young feel ever more alienated.

A broken, unsustainable system

In the 2019 general election – Boris Johnson's “Get Brexit Done” election, that delivered an 80-plus Conservative majority – just over 50 per cent of voters aged 18-24 turned up to vote, whereas the figure for voters over 65 was around 80 per cent. And this disparity matters, in terms of electoral outcomes: whereas roughly 60 per cent of over-65 voters backed the Conservatives, only around 27 per cent of 18-24-year-old voters did so.

Nor is it as easy as it once might have been to dismiss the policy concerns of young people as unimportant, or their views as immature. If they care more about the environment and climate change than older voters, if they are more outraged by glaring international abuses of the human rights norms with which they have been raised, and if they are enraged by an economy blighted by a combination of grotesque housing costs and insecure junk jobs, they are clearly right to identify these failures as symptoms of a badly broken and increasingly unsustainable system. And the idea that a living democracy is not just about voting, but about a free and vigorous culture of debate with plenty of room for protest and activism, is not only popular among young people, but vital, and absolutely accurate.

Single-issue activism, though, can only achieve real change by working alongside electoral politics; and it feels as though the democratic rights we take for granted are now facing an insidious series of threats, some of them from sources very close to home. Some 21st-century right-wing politicians across the West, for example, simply are not keen on too much democracy, and openly legislate to suppress turnout among younger and more disadvantaged voters, as the UK Government did recently with its shameful and unnecessary requirement that voters at polling stations show types of identification which many people simply do not have.

Support for military rule

Then there are those who have striven to narrow the “Overton window” of acceptable debate, and to push it to the right, to the point where competing mainstream parties can offer voters very little real choice, on many key economic issues. And these same political actors often encourage the resulting cynicism about the democratic process, and whether it can really achieve anything, that is one of the main weapons of those who have never liked democracy, and are glad to see it weakened.

A global survey published in September this year, for example, found that a frightening 42 per cent of young people worldwide thought that military rule, or a strong leader without checks and balances, would be the best way to run a country; and that casual contempt for the ordinary institutions of democracy – combined with a naive belief that human rights and freedoms can somehow be protected without them – must be music to the ears of those who already hold too much wealth and power, and want no democratic interference with the exercise of it.

We live in a world, in other words, where persuading young people to reject those insidious anti-democratic arguments, and to combine single-issue campaigning with a commitment to make their voices heard in electoral politics, seems ever more vitally important. The results of recent elections across Europe and beyond – and the very fact of a possible return to power by Donald Trump – demonstrate that the older generations who have made such a mess of our world can no longer be trusted to reject the snake-oil remedies of the xenophobic far right; and in some cases will listen to any nonsense that seeks to legitimise the blocking of change, in the face of a world that – as most young people can see – clearly demands massive system changes, for our very survival.

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The quid pro quo, though, for re-involving people under 25 in our politics is a willingness to hear their anger and disillusion, to recognise that it is often justified, and to address some of the deep structural problems that blight their future prospects. It means no longer dismissing their rage over Gaza, or poverty in the UK, or climate change, but beginning to respect it, and to negotiate with it. And so far – despite some good work on the inclusion of young people, in Scotland and elsewhere – the number of mainstream politicians willing to do that, in the UK and beyond, is much too small; not only for their own good, but for ours, and that of the world we share.



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