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Parliamentary Affairs (2012) 65, 281–299

doi:10.1093/pa/gsr056

REVIEW ESSAY Understanding Electoral Turnout Among British Young People: A Review of the Literature Edward Phelps*
University of Sussex, UK; Information Society Alliance, UK
*

Downloaded from http://pa.oxfordjournals.org/ at Swinburne University of Technology on March 18, 2013

Correspondence: edphelps@gmail.com

This article reviews the literature on youth engagement in politics. The article develops the argument that much of the research in this area is not set within the commonly understood and widely accepted political science literature on the determinants of voting behaviour in the UK. The article critiques the methodological approach which underpins much of this research, suggesting that in order to gain a real understanding of the dynamics of contemporary youth engagement an understanding of generational influences and differences is essential. I argue that explanations for youth disengagement tend to emanate from two schools of thought: the traditional political science understanding of youth turnout based on life-cycle explanations, or what I term the ‘anti-apathy’ approach, which, I argue, fails to situate young people’s political activity within the context of the political life cycle.

1.

The social basis of political support

The orthodox sociological model of electoral stability and party formation consolidated around the classic work of Seymour Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967). According to Lipset and Rokkan (1967), after European party systems were established they froze, as parties consolidated their support bases, absorbed new social cleavages and developed long standing party images. Essential to Lipset and Rokkan’s theory was the idea that in order to survive political parties needed to reflect older divisions in society. Proponents of sociological models of voting argued that it was possible to predict with some accuracy how an individual or individuals would vote on the basis of a few social characteristics (Lazarsfeld et al., 1944). Berelson et al. (1954) paved the way for those who later focused on the salience of the psychological aspects of group membership for voting. They argued that social group # The Author [2012]. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Hansard Society; all rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

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differences are reinforced through these groups having differing material or symbolic interests which are affected by government policy. They also argued that conditions of physical and social proximity meant that these differences were transmitted across generations. Campbell et al. (1966) argued that many Americans voters lacked sufficient information about politics as well as political sophistication. For Americans to vote on the basis of issues, Campbell et al. argued that first, people had to be familiar with the issue; secondly, the issue needed to arouse some feelings and; thirdly, people had to see a party difference on the issue (p. 170). The central finding of Campbell et al.’s study was that ‘most Americans have an enduring partisan orientation, a sense of party identification, which has wide effects on their attitudes toward the things that are visible in the political world’ (Campbell et al., 1966, p. 529). These insights, I argue, remain pertinent because for today’s young voters, unshackled from political parties and less able to see a substantive difference between them, are likely to be increasingly susceptible to the information they receive about politics in forming their attitudinal and participatory characteristics. Crucial to this social psychological conception of partisanship is that individual party identification developed before an individual had their formative participative experiences. They were learnt within an individual’s immediate social environment and particularly from one’s family. My...
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