Abi Wilkinson: Will young voters finally get off their arses for Corbyn?
There are reasons to believe that youth turnout will finally increase in this general election.
In 2015, Ed Miliband pinned his electoral hopes on reengaging disaffected young people – only to watch the Tories secure a decisive majority as youth turnout lingered in the low 40s. Labour supporters were devastated by the result, which was far worse for the party than opinion polls had been predicting. Cynics were unsurprised, however. Rolling their eyes, they repeated a straightforward truism: the thing about non-voters is that they don’t, generally speaking, tend to vote.
This time, the polls are all over the place – indicating anything between a 1 point and 12 point lead. The primary reason for this disparity is simple: turnout. Younger people are significantly more likely to support Labour than older demographics. The polling companies showing the worst results for Labour are presuming young people will vote at roughly the same rate as in the last election.
Those suggesting a close race are taking young voters at their word and assuming a significantly higher level of engagement. YouGov is one of the companies that has been most optimistic about Labour’s chances. Back at the start of May, just 45% of 18 to 24-year-old respondents said they were certain to vote. In recent weeks, that figure has jumped to 62%.
So how likely is this to actually be true? Pessimists can point to opinion polls taken just before the 2015 election which indicated a similar spike. A week beforehand, YouGov had 18-24s claiming they were certain to make it to the voting booth. It’s possible that the current surge in enthusiasm is just as flims.
However, there is some reason to hope that things might be different this time around. First of all, there’s the fact that youth turnout was significantly up for the EU referendum. Research conducted by Opinium suggest it was around 64%. What’s more, looking at what has happened in Scotland, there’s some reason to believe that high turnout in a referendum might lead to continued increased engagement. It’s thought that 75% of 16 and 17 year olds voted in the 2014 Indyref, and 54% of 18-24 year olds. Scottish youth turnout in the 2015 general election was higher than in other parts of the UK.
The current Labour manifesto also courts young voters in a particularly overt way. The pledge to scrap tuition fees is the policy that voters are most likely to recall (though it’s worth remembering that the Liberal Democrats’ similar proposal in 2010 only led to a 1% increase in vote share). Other, less high profile, policies would measurably improve the lives of the young. The vast majority of young people live in private rental accommodation – so proposals to impose a cap on rent increases and build 1 million more new homes have obvious appeal.
What’s undoubtedly true is that young people have a long list of reasons to feel dissatisfied with the current state of things. Spiralling housing costs, stagnating wages, the casualisation of contracts and other exploitative employment practices, welfare cuts that have specifically targeted people their age. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is seen as representing a decisive break with this status quo – so it’s unsurprising the party is polling a massive 57 points ahead amongst under 25s.
The crucial question is: to what extent do young voters really believe politics can alter their lives for the better? Older generations are likely to vote out of habit or civic duty. People who’ve never previously bothered need a stronger motivation. It’s one thing to say you favour a particular party when asked. Actually making it to the polling station requires a belief that it’s within your power to make a difference.
It’s possible the EU referendum has helped demonstrate that democratic votes can genuinely change things, and that Corbyn’s Labour seems different enough that it’s worth going out and supporting. Still, the party can’t afford to take any boost in youth engagement for granted. Ousting the Conservatives is totally impossible without a remarkable increase in turnout amongst both 18-24s and older millennials. Labour needs to chuck everything it has at getting younger voter to the polls.
The Tories seem fairly confident it’s not going to happen. One MP told the Huffington Post: “Under-30s love Corbyn but they don’t care enough to get off their lazy arses to vote for him!” I’d argue that what he dismisses as laziness is more accurately described as disempowerment and fatalism. Later this week we will find out who is right.
Photo credit: Press Association