John Curtice, the political scientist, observed last week that
the Labour Party was no longer the party of the worker. In fact, Curtice
suggested, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had become the party of the youth. There
is good reason for thinking this. A number of headline-grabbing manifesto
pledges, including the removal of tuition fees, writing off student debt and
promising to give 16-year olds the vote, have all indicated a shift away from
the traditional Labour heartlands of the Industrial North. However, such a shift
should not be overemphasised – youth voters remain chronically disengaged with
Indeed, much was made of the 2017 election, which saw the
youth mobilise to deny Theresa May and the Conservatives a majority. However,
retrospective analysis of that
election showed that voter turnout amongst 18-25-year olds only increased by
2.5 percentage points. And it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic shift
in this election. There are two reasons for this: those that we might think of
as unchangeable factors, and others that we might call changeable factors.
The unchangeable factors can be fairly neatly grouped into one
general idea: young people are simply not exposed to politics as much as older
voters. Young people will have had less experience with interest rates and
paying taxes, and will have engaged less with the housing market. These are
unchangeable because they are purely down to experience: younger people, on
average, simply will not have had the chance to buy and sell multiple
properties as older voters will have. Therefore, much of the ground that
traditional politics is fought over is alien, or at least very new, to younger
people. We will come back to this idea shortly.
With that said, engagement with politics shouldn’t be
overegged. As Daniel Finkelstein put it recently, almost
half (48%) of people have not heard of John McDonnell, and only 18% could
accurately place Dominic Cummins. Though, we might conjecture, these numbers
are like to be higher amongst younger voters, it doesn’t seem fair to argue
that it is just young people who are disengaged.
On the other hand, we have the changeable factors. These can
be grouped into two key ideas: the debates that we have and the way that we
discuss them. As we noted a little earlier, the traditional battlegrounds for
politics are ones that leave younger people at a disadvantage through their
relative lack of engagement with those issues. Though the experience itself is
unchangeable, the issues discussed are not. As we have seen, there has been a
gradual shift towards issues that younger voters care about – climate change is
an excellent example of this. However, modern political debates fail to
pre-empt the issues that young people are likely to care about in the next few
years, such as the changing demographic and the increasingly need to care for
The Under-30s Question Time debate, aired on the BBC this
week, might indicate a change in this trend, a “Youthquake 2.0” so to speak. But
perhaps the biggest takeaways was the extent to which it was almost
indistinguishable from a normal Question Time. The topics, though perhaps more
engaging for under 30s, were not uniquely nor disproportionately more important
to younger voters.
Likewise, the format itself lent itself to a standard
political debate, as did the timing, where parties will have kept at least one
eye on getting out a couple of smart general soundbites in the week before the
election. This accounts for our second changeable factor – the way politics is
done. Younger voters are clearly frustrated about the way the country is run.
However, there remains a disconnect between young people and traditional
politics. This is perhaps reflected by one of highlights of the Under-30s
Question Time: the declaration from Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru leader, that he
would make lying by politicians illegal. This idea captures a sense among young
voters that politics is not “for” them. A theme that stretched right through
the debate was that young people perceive modern political discourse as being
built around political points scoring, spinning favourable arguments and
ignoring problematic issues than enacting actual change. (This might also
explain the popularity of Labour’s aspirational politics). This is an ill fit
for a generation who have grown up with the ubiquity of the phrase “Google it”
and access to truth at their fingertips.
The makeup of the new government will go a long way to shaping the engagement of younger voters in the years to come. Both parties have an opportunity to develop a different type of politics, one that must, ultimately, incorporate younger voters in a more collaborative way.
Luke Webb is an account executive at The PR Office.