Making social science accessible

04 May 2021

Politics and Society

It is not just in the United Kingdom that political obsessives are counting down the days to 6 May, when we will see elections for English local councils, the London Assembly, directly elected mayors in England, police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, the Welsh Parliament and – last but certainly not least – the Scottish Parliament.

Here in Adelaide in South Australia we will be watching closely too, especially when it comes to analysis of the electoral behaviour of young people in these elections.

Much media comment is focused on the extent to which young people will vote at all. The campaign group @_I_have_a_voice have campaigned to get an additional 50,000 young people registered to vote following evidence that less than three quarters of young people were registered.

Despite an apparent surge of enthusiasm amongst young people for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, electoral turnout amongst young people in the UK remains significantly lower than in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.

This has arguably had profound consequences for UK politics – such as in the close result in the Brexit referendum of 2016, in which those young people who did take part were strongly in favour of Remain.

Based at Flinders University, my co-author and I are interested in how young people perceive the candidates on offer. Do young people favour candidates closer to their own age or, as would seem the case with Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, do they react positively to a strong ideological message?

As part of a larger research project we are working on, we conducted an experiment using almost one thousand Australian students.

We asked them to complete a simple questionnaire containing 11 questions and the photo of one of three politicians: Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Hans-Christian Ströbele, a similar figure in the German Green Party.

Other than being left-leaning political leaders, these three men have another important characteristic in common: all three were way over 70 years old during their last national electoral run.

As in any well-designed experiment, we divided our respondents into two groups with roughly the same number of people in each group.

The first group simply received a survey containing 11 questions and the photo of one of the three politicians.

The second group, on the contrary, received a survey containing 11 questions, the photo of one of the three politicians, and a collection of nine very generic policy statements that, in general terms, represent policy positions of the candidate in the photo.

A good example of these statements is “I support the rights of workers” for former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

We were happy to use Australian students because both culturally and in terms of democratic traditions Australia is close enough to the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany for us to make reliable and valid generalisations from our findings.

At the same time, Australia is also far enough away from these three countries that most of our student-respondents wouldn’t recognise the candidates.

We checked by asking at the end of the survey if they knew who the man in the picture was, and the overwhelming majority of respondents had no idea of who that person was.

Many research projects use this technique, including some of our own research using Canadians to evaluate American politicians, Australians to evaluate American politicians, and Canadians to evaluate German politicians.

Dividing the respondents into two groups allowed us to isolate and compare attitudes to both age and policy preferences.

We found that young voters are more likely to vote for an older candidate when they know that the older candidate champions left-wing policy stances and left-wing values, broadly defined.

We also found, however, that young voters do not seem to display any kind of a priori bias against older candidates.

In other words, they seem to be quite happy to support older candidates even without knowing anything about their policy preferences.

Our findings seem to question some assumptions about voter bias found in the existing academic literature: they indicate that young people today seem to be more motivated by policy considerations and far less concerned by issues of descriptive representation and that this will have an increasing impact on how politics is contested in the UK and elsewhere.

We are also interested in how the UK’s traumatic experience of Covid-19 will impact on electoral behaviour in the May elections.

Early data analysis on the result of local elections conducted in Australia during Melbourne’s lengthy Covid-19 lockdown last year shows, for instance, that the rate of informal votes cast—that is, invalid votes due to either voter error or voters deliberately annulling their vote (since in Australia voting is compulsory)—diminished dramatically in comparison to similar elections in previous years.

This early evidence indicates that greater use of postal voting in an age of pandemic may allow people extra time to make sure that they vote correctly, avoiding mistakes that later nullify the vote, or even that people are better able to gather enough adequate information to make an informed decision.

Again, as with our findings on voter bias, these findings about the effect of postal votes have implications for how elections are fought in the future and the amount of policy detail and other information that voters will demand from their politicians.

By Charles Lees, Dean in the College of Business, Government, and Law, and Rodrigo Praino, associate professor of Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University, Australia.


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