Puzzling participants or disaffected citizenry? Re-examining education’s impacts on the electoral mobilisation of Britain’s youth
Snelling, Charlotte Jane
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This thesis extends our understanding of a ‘puzzle of participation’ (Brody 1978). Across established Western democracies, turnout in elections has been steadily falling - at the same time, society is modernising. Central to this latter phenomenon is educational expansion, a process in which there is increased higher education (HE) enrolment, rising attainment levels, and even wider citizenship education. Under classic civic education hypotheses, such factors are anticipated to increase political literacy, raise electoral interest, and provide encouraging environments for political participation. Hence, the patterns we observe in turnout present as paradoxical. This is especially evident among the very youngest electors, who comprise arguably the most educated generation yet but are also the least likely to vote. The thesis thus poses the question: Why is the comparatively higher level of education enjoyed by young people today not associated with a higher level of voter turnout? My response takes inspiration from Norris’s ‘critical citizens’ (1999, 2011) and combines this with repertoire replacement (Dalton 2008; Norris 2003) and sorting model (Nie et al 1996) theories to develop an argument based on a multiplicity of education effects on turnout. Specifically, I present a thesis which contends that higher levels of education today encourage the emergence of a non-voting disaffected citizenry, characterised by two distinct dimensions. The first, a dissatisfied-disaffection is thought to be present among growing student populations. It is this demographic group which, in response to its members’ HE experiences, is challenging established political processes, becoming more demanding of an active role in politics, and turning to alternative participation activities when opportunities arise. Within this I posit two non-voter types: (a) frustrated electors, committed to voting yet exasperated by the responsiveness of political actors and their policy offers at elections, and (b) engaged activists, pointedly rejecting voting in favour of more direct and ongoing influencing activities. The second dimension reflects alienated-disaffection. Here, individuals who lack HE experience are seeing their status and position decline in line with educational inflation, and, as a consequence, experience limited political network mobilisation, find their confidence for participation falling, and so withdraw from politics altogether. They are marginalised citizens. Meanwhile, a number of young people will continue to vote, receiving encouragement from their social networks and partisan attachments; mobilised voters. This thesis makes its contributions in testing and refining these propositions in the case of the British electorate using data from the British Election Study, British Participation Survey, and the Citizens in Transition Survey. Through a range of statistical techniques (including logistic regression, latent class analysis, and structural equation modelling) I devise new ways of operationalising disaffection, and assess its varied impact on turnout. This thesis progresses to explore typologies of participation repertoires, within which combinations of disaffection attitudes and turnout behaviours exist. It then examines in more detail the educational mechanisms through which these occur.