Many commentators believe that the youth vote will be crucial in the forthcoming general election, and that the young are more radical than their elders. They are wrong on both counts.
Far from pulsating with radicalism, the young are in fact more apathetic and less likely to vote than their elders. Indeed, in 1992, around half of those aged between 18 and 21 did not bother to turn out at all. This age group also showed by far the smallest proportion of registered electors, a consequence no doubt of volatile residence patterns amongst the young.
Of those 18 to 29-year-olds who did vote in 1992, there was a 2 per cent Conservative majority. The 30 to 44 age group was the most left-wing age cohort, splitting its vote evenly between Labour and the Conservatives; only 45 to 64-year-olds were more to the right than the young, giving the Conservatives a lead of 8 per cent.
Our thinking about the young is highly stereotyped. When, in 1969, 18 to 21-year-olds were given the vote in Britain, it was assumed that this would benefit the left. In fact this age group voted disproportionately for Heath in 1970 as it was to do for Nixon in the United States in 1972; while, contrary to popular perceptions, the Vietnam war was disproportionately supported by the college-educated and the young.
We tend to think of 18 to 21-year-olds as students at elite universities whose interests are dominated by politics. The majority of the young, however, do not attend elite universities and are more detached from politics than their elders and less likely to be members of political parties or even of single-issue groups.
These findings must be a source of worry for teachers and educationists. For political views tend to be formed during adolescence, and, once formed, they rarely change. Indeed, much of the swing in votes between one election and another is caused not by direct switching but by generational effects as one age-cohort dies out to be replaced by another. The Labour victory for 1964, ending 13 years of Conservative rule, may well have been the result of such a generational change. In their classic work, Political Change in Britain, David Butler and Donald Stokes showed that if the electorate of 1959 had been voting in 1964, the Conservatives would have won. However, the cohort leaving the electorate through death was disproportionately Conservative, the Labour party having been a mere infant at the beginning of the century, while the cohort coming to maturity in 1964 was disproportionately Labour.
Whatever the outcome of the 1997 election, Labour has reason for concern at the younger generation's lack of radicalism, while the country has reason for concern at its lack of political involvement.
What, then, is to be done? A PR company has set up an organisation called Rock the Vote designed to encourage young people to register and to use their vote. It is unlikely to enjoy a greater degree of success than civics lessons in schools which, far from lessening apathy, may well have contributed to it amongst successive generations of school pupils.
For the trouble is that politics in Britain has become very much a minority sport, and one largely confined to the middle-aged. Thus, while the apathy of the young poses a challenge to teachers, it poses an even greater challenge to the political system itself, a system which has come to be dominated by rival groups of oligarchs competing for power in an arena which largely excludes the public, a house without windows. Perhaps the young indeed are wiser than their elders in choosing to devote little time to politics. For, as Oscar Wilde once said, the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.
Over the past decade, constitutional reform - devolution, proportional representation and reform of the House of Lords - has come to the forefront of political debate. Yet it is doubtful if the constitutional reform agenda meets the needs of those who feel that the political system has little to say to them. Indeed, some of the reforms would have the effect of increasing rather than decreasing the power of those professionals who already dominate politics. There might perhaps be a shuffling of power between different groups - away from the Conservatives and towards Labour and the Liberal Democrats - but no fundamental change in terms of greater involvement of the public.
The challenge, then, is to re-establish a new relationship between the political system and the people. That involves going beyond the constitutional reform agenda to ensure greater public participation in politics. The referendum can help achieve this, but it remains a weapon owned by the political class which can dictate when it should be used. What is needed is direct democracy which is in the hands of the people. Channel 4 has shown the lead with its exercises in deliberative democracy on such matters as Europe, crime and punishment and the monarchy. This is a form of the citizens' jury, the principle of which could easily be adapted and extended.
In local government, the petition referendum could be introduced allowing, say, 5 per cent of registered voters to secure a referendum on council policy. But, above all, the development of technology could be utilised to the cause of popular participation so that the people can take part in the decision-making process in front of their own television sets rather than being required to congregate in the market-place.
It is in this direction, surely, that our democracy can be revitalised so that it may serve, for young people, as a model to be emulated, and as an achievement that we can pass on to our children without shame.
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University. His essays Politics and the Constitution were published by Dartmouth earlier this year.