Young Conservatives, Young Socialists and the great youth abstention : youth participation and non-participation in political parties
This thesis is an investigation into participation and non-participation by young people in British political parties. Falling turnout in British elections has lead to concern about the level of popular participation in the political system, especially amongst the young. Those between 18 and 25 are less likely to involve themselves in political activity than any other age group. This thesis argues that political parties and their grassroots members are still vital to British democracy and that the failure of both parties to recruit young members is leading to increasingly aged and inactive parties. Even measuring the extent of youth membership of the main parties is problematic due to a lack of accurate membership figures. The figures available show that whilst neither the Labour nor the Conservative Party has enjoyed unqualified success in recruiting young members, Labour has enjoyed comparative success in increasing its youth membership in the period 1970-2001 both absolutely and as proportion of the total membership. I have argued that whilst there is research on participation and non-participation there is little specific on the particular area of young people and political parties. I have suggested and evaluated competing explanations of this problem and I have been able to develop and test a youth-specific model of participation and non-participation. This model builds on the general incentive model developed by Seyd and Whiteley but provides a more comprehensive, and youth specific, model of both participation and non-participation. This new model builds considerably on our understanding of why young people choose to join, or not join, a political party. However, a static sample only takes me so far. A study of the Labour and Conservative youth organisations also shows that they have contributed to their relative success or failure through popular perceptions of their image and through the relationship with their parent parties. My improved model of participation and non-participation is complemented by a consideration that the mobilisation model contributes to understanding trends in membership. Those youth organisations that are able to recruit actively with support from the parent party are more likely to succeed than those who are not. I have provided a detailed and critical study of the Labour and Conservative youth organisations, the first such study since 1970. From this study I have helped explain the comparative success of the Labour Party and the comparative failure of the Conservative Party in recruiting young members. Both party’s youth organisations suffered from poor perceptions of extremism, infighting and unfashionability at certain times in the period under study which helped deter potential members. These problems were often compounded by a poor relationship between the youth organisation and the parent party. However, whilst, eventually, the Labour Party was able to solve these problems to a certain extent, the Conservative Party has yet to find a solution to its recruitment problems amongst young people.