As previous posts in this series have shown, one of the major challenges facing British democracy is the declining tendency of successive generations of young citizens to vote, leaving them under-represented in policy-making and potentially raising questions about the legitimacy of our democratic institutions in the future, as this low turnout becomes a lifelong habit. It has prompted increased interest in policies that could help more young people vote and start to develop voting habits, such as Votes at 16 or a reformed citizenship curriculum.
The purpose of Social Action as a Route to the Ballot Box has been to determine whether policies that promote youth volunteering (such as the National Citizen Service or #IWill) should be added to that list. Now that the research is almost complete, it is increasingly clear that they should.
Most of the existing research on volunteering argues that young people do become more politically active if they volunteer, because it allows them to broaden their social networks, gives them first-hand experience of social and political issues that might motivate political activity, and helps them develop skills (such as team-working or research) that makes voting easier. That research has been hindered, however, by the ‘causality conundrum’: the fact that many characteristics associated with volunteering are also associated with voting, meaning that someone who votes is likely to volunteer and vice versa, and we cannot be confident that there is a causal link between the two.
For young people who are still living through the early years of their political socialisation, the most influential of these ‘confounding factors’ is the political and civic characteristics of their parents, who provide powerful cues and stimuli that guide and shape the way we engage with politics and the lifelong political habits we form. The failure of previous research to effectively account for this influence means that we still cannot be certain that young people who volunteer become more likely to engage with politics as a result, rather than being more likely to both volunteer and vote because they were raised by parents who encouraged them to be civically engaged.
Social Action as a Route to the Ballot Box has used data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) and a variety of statistical analyses to (at least in part) overcome this difficulty, and examine the effect of youth volunteering on the turnout of first-time voters while accounting for their pre-existing levels of political interest and the political engagement of their parents. The results show that youth volunteering is an effective means of getting more young people to the ballot box – but only for those from politically disengaged households. This is illustrated in Figure One (below), based on data from a subsample of young people aged between 15 and 22 – none of whom had voted in a general election before – over several waves of the survey before the 2015 UK General Election.
Figure One shows the proportion who had any interest in politics several years before the election (in the 2011/2013 survey) and around the election (in the 2014/16 survey), depending on whether they had volunteered in between. It also shows the data for respondents who had at least one parent who reported being ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ interested in politics in the 2010/11 survey (classed as a ‘high engagement household’), and for those where both parents were ‘not at all’ or ‘not very’ interested (classed as a ‘low engagement household’). 1
The graph also shows that all respondents (regardless of whether they volunteered) became more interested in politics between 2011/13 and 2014/16. This is unsurprising as people typically become more politically interested as they reach adulthood and become eligible to vote. What matters for this research, however, is the difference between the change in political interest over time for non-volunteers and that for volunteers, which identifies a potential ‘volunteer effect’. Looking at the full sample, there is no evidence of such an effect: the proportion of non-volunteers and volunteers interested in politics increased by around 16-points between the two surveys.
There is similarly no effect for respondents with a politically engaged parent at home, where the proportion of non-volunteers and volunteers interested in politics grew by less than a point. For those without a politically engaged parent, however, there is a substantial volunteer effect: the proportion of non-volunteers interested in politics grew by 2-points between the 2011/13 and 2014/16 surveys, but for volunteers it grew by 10-points.
Youth volunteering, therefore, has a substantial impact on the political interest of young people who are unlikely to be socialised into engaging with politics at home. Those from politically engaged households, in contrast, are likely to take an interest in politics regardless of whether they volunteer: as Figure One shows, there is virtually no difference between the political interest of volunteers and non-volunteers among this group. Youth volunteering has the potential, therefore, to essentially compensate for the lack of encouragement to engage with politics children raised in politically disengaged households receive during socialisation.
Schemes that promote youth volunteering, therefore, have a considerable potential to reduce age-inequalities in turnout. For that potential to be realised, however, they need to focus on getting young people from disengaged households to volunteer – a particularly difficult objective because by virtue of being raised in disengaged households they are the least likely to wish to volunteer (of all the respondents who volunteered by the 2011/13 and 2014/16 surveys, 70 per cent came from highly engaged households).
In considering the policy implications of this research, therefore, the focus must be on the issue of getting young people who may have little motivation to volunteer to do so – a potentially controversial conclusion considering the growth of ‘compulsory volunteering’ schemes throughout the UK.