Elections, youth representation and citizenship



Our work has supported changes in the law that have led to the election of a number of 18-21 year old councillors, provided the groundwork for the formation of a UK ‘Youth Citizenship Panel’, informed the Labour Party’s 2010 General Election manifesto, fed into the debate on voting age within the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, and assisted a number of international civil society organisations.

Unprecedentedly low rates of engagement and participation by young people, in political institutions and elections, are an increasingly common feature of both established and transformative democracies. Through a number of targeted engagements at local, national and international levels, research at The University of Manchester seeks to highlight and support potential solutions and interventions.

Prof Russell is a regulator contributor to national broadcast media, including The Daily Politics (BBC2), The Today Programme (BBC Radio 4) and both the ITV and BBC news channels. In addition to these engagements, his research has shaped public debates around youth participation, citizenship and voting age, through a series of high profile interventions:

- Reacting to the Political Studies Association response to the 2008 ‘Governance of Britain’ Green Paper (co-written by Russell), the Justice Secretary (Jack Straw) and Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) set up the UK Youth Citizenship Commission (YCC) to consider the place of young people and politics in contemporary Britain. Russell gave evidence to the Commission and subsequently served as a member of the ‘Expert Advisory Panel’ (2008-9), where according to the YCC Chair his research informed several recommendations: “In particular, his highlighting of the lack of support amongst the electorate for a reduction in the voting age”. More recently, Russell gave evidence to the Youth Select Committee on ‘Votes at 16’.

- Research findings fed into two Electoral Commission reports ‘Voter Engagement and Young People’ (2002) and ‘The Age of Majority’ (2004). The former proposed measures to reengage young people in active citizenship and participatory democracy, and had a clear impact on the 2010 Labour Party Manifesto which demonstrated a multifaceted commitment to youth engagement. The latter report recommended a reduction in the minimum age of candidature (from 21 to 18) in all UK elections, which was enacted in the Election Administration Act (2006). This work continues to inform public debate, in particular, voting age for the Scottish independence Referendum of 2014.

Youth disengagement is not UK-specific. In 2011 Russell’s keynote talk at the Commonwealth Secretariat conference in Male (Maldives) to heads of Government, addressed the issue of how to engage young people in politics through the ‘ladder of participation’. In 2010 Russell was appointed International Mentor for the ‘Youth Forum’ of The Open Society Initiative (Budapest).

The Fellows he mentored have developed advocacy plans in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Moldova, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia (including lobbying on draft Youth Laws in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the formation of a Bulgarian youth-led NGO, which stood on the platform of a newly established political party in the May 2013 elections). In 2009, Prof Russell was appointed to the Commonwealth Observer Group for Elections in Mozambique and co-wrote the final report.

Our research

A series of research projects have been undertaken, examining various aspects of the politics of young people. As well as confirming the unprecedentedly low level of engagement and participation of young people in political institutions and elections, it has also encouraged policy changes designed to improve the quality and quantity of representation of young people in established institutions.
Throughout, the aim has been to develop a clearer understanding of the extent and implications of the ongoing ‘crisis’ of youth disengagement at local, national and international levels. The research focuses on several lines of enquiry.
Poor levels of youth engagement in politics. The immediate focus was the UK 2001 election where the national turnout figure fell to 59%, and the research team provided the now accepted statistic that turnout was lowest among the youngest sections of the electorate (41%).

Negative portrayals of youth disengagement, with politics essentialised as a problem in ‘youth-centred media’. The research has called for the application of different criteria for evaluating youth interests.

Young people marginalised by the structures of the political process, with portrayals of youth disengagement as part of a self-sustaining problem. It was found that positive images of youth engagement with politics are atypical, alongside an apparent reluctance to accept evidence of an interest in politics from young people.

The need for a clearer understanding of the various ‘pathways to power’ available for young people, particularly within established political parties. Some practical measures are suggested, such as civic and voter education programmes, and schemes of civic voluntarism.