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The Ballot or the Bullet?

Public Affairs
general election 2024

Teenagers find themselves at the centre of the first weekend of the election. 

It is sixty years since Malcolm X delivered his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, but the first weekend of the general election campaign feels like we have returned to 1964.

One year before that speech, in 1963, the final national servicemen were discharged, thereby bringing to an end the UK system of mandatory military service.

The Prime Minister, Rish Sunak,  took many people by surprise last week, including many of his own colleagues, when he pledged to deliver a policy of national service, where 18-year-olds will have to take part in a scheme involving military or civilian service. The £2.5bn scheme attracts headlines around the military option, although there will be a maximum of 30,000 places in military service, which means the vast majority of the 700,000+ 18-year-olds will be involved in community volunteering, a scheme involving one weekend a month for a year (25 days in total) to work with the NHS, police or fire services or a local charity.

Those volunteering for military service will be paid a stipend or living allowance, although the numbers are not yet confirmed, and while they could be trained in a variety of non-frontline roles, the service will not include combat training. Some critics have already highlighted that the number troops in the British Army has fallen from 100,000 to around 73,000 under the current government, so the additional 30,000 recruits will only just make up the difference.

While it has been made clear that not taking part in the compulsory-voluntary scheme will result in a punishment, the Home Secretary was quick to point out this would not mean jail, so we can expect some system of fines for those not participating. In the current political climate, the proposal seems like a radical idea, but around 80 countries around the world currently have some form of national service, and depending on the country there are numerous exceptions including university students. single parents and professional athletes. 

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer compared the proposal to  “….a sort of teenage Dad’s Army…” while also signalling his own return to the 1960s and a reduction in the voting age from 18 to 16. The last time the voting age was reduced was in 1969, when it was cut from 21 to 18.

Political leaders will lean heavily on polling before making election policy announcements, so who has judged this one correctly? Well, on previous polling, neither of them!

Polling consistently points to around one-third of the voting public supporting a reduction in the voting age to 16, while similar figures on a recent poll found that 34% of voters were in favour of a one-year system of compulsory national service, compared to 58% opposed to it. However, this opposition to national service sharpens significantly among the 18-24 age group, where the YouGov poll in September found just 10% support against 78% who opposed it.

How will any of this impact the result of the upcoming election? Turnout in the 18-24 age group is historically lower than older groups, and although it was the only group to record a steady increase in turnout across the three elections between 2015 and 2019, that turnout was estimated to be just 53%, compared to around 80% for the over-75 age group. This youngest age group is also more likely to back Labour than the Conservatives and although Boris Johnson cut the lead, the margin was still around 25% in 2019.

With around six million voters aged between 18 and 24, any increase in turnout could put them in the driving seat for the outcome of the 2024 election, especially when considering the 2017 election majority of around 800,000 votes that separated Theresa May from Jeremy Corbyn. This figure had widened to 3.7 million votes in 2019, but nobody is seriously comparing this year to the 2019 contest.

Add in the discussion about the smoking ban, Rishi’s regret that he has not had time to complete the legislation plus a Keir hint that he will continue the policy, and a good deal of discussion from the last few days has focused not on how it will directly affect the 18-24 age group but how it will affect the 12-16 age group. As they don’t have a vote….yet, it will come down to parents to analyse whether their kids would prefer to vote earlier or undertake national service. Amidst the other issues young people face around education (including VAT on school fees), housing, crime and climate change, it may be that both of the Leaders are, to returm to the 1960’s for a musical reference again, just Blowin’ in the Wind with these early policy plans.

Although for the Prime Minister, even this would be a better outcome than being reminded of the music scene from 4th July 1964, when Roy Orbison topped the UK charts with “It’s Over!”.