Both Jeremy Corbyn’s personal style and policies spoke to young people and turned them out to vote. Georgia Gould looks at what happened when a section of society wanted to make themselves heard
The week after the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, I stood in Parliament Square talking to a crowd of furious 16-to-18 year olds. The anger was still raw. Young people shared their shock and disbelief at their own powerlessness as they watched their country being taken in a direction they did not believe in. Suddenly politics hit hard at their identity and sense of self. This June, some of those young people will have made their way to the polls for the first time.
Young people had become so absent in our political debate that their influence had been discounted. The assumption of their indifference had been built into pollsters’ calculations and political campaign strategies.
Jeremy Corbyn took a gamble in ignoring the status quo that branded young people as a lost cause in electoral politics.
We are always dealing with estimates when it comes to turnout figures but it is clear that there has been an increase in youth turnout in 2017’s snap election. Ipsos Mori estimates a 16-point increase for 18-to-24 year olds, up to 54 per cent, and an eight point increase among 25-to-35 year olds from 2015.
We should not overstate it. Older voters are still the dominant electoral force in the UK. Over 70 per cent over-55 year olds voted. A higher youth turnout is the start of a rebalancing of our political system but there is a lot more work to be done to build this into an electorally successful force.
What was starker than the turnout figures was the swing to Labour amongst young voters. All the Labour swing can be accounted for by under-44 year olds with the biggest swing among 25-to-34 year olds. This was not just first time voters and students – generation Z voters – it was also millennials struggling with pay and housing.
Over 60 per cent of 18-to-29 year olds voted Labour, and less than a quarter voted Conservative. The pattern reverses itself for the over 70s where 69 per cent voted Conservative and only 19 per cent Labour.
The generational divide is now the biggest indicator of voting preference, which is a massive change in British politics.
Class and education layer on top of this. Young people are not a uniform group. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are least likely to engage in politics, and for many not engaging is in itself a protest against a system that they feel is set up against them.
But the broad trends suggest more young people voted and more voted Labour.
There is no doubt that Brexit politicised many young people. It shook many out of a belief that formal politics made no difference to their lives. Over 70 per cent of young voters are believed to have supported ‘Remain’ but only around half voted. Many of the young people I spoke to were often instinctively pro-European. It was part of their DNA, from rite of passage European holidays to aspirations to work and live abroad. Many had only ever known life as part of the EU. They have grown up in a diverse country and accept a multi-layered identity.
Most importantly, the Brexit decision said something about the kind of country they wanted – open, outward looking, not isolationist and harking back to the past. It was a question fundamentally of values. Anger over the vote helps explain some of the swing where young voters punished the Conservatives for their hard Brexit stance.
The generational political gap aligns closely with views on Brexit. Forty-seven is the age where someone is most likely to crossover from a Labour voter to a Conservative one and 43 from a remainer to a ‘Leave’ voter.
There were other important reasons for the increased youth turnout. The pledges on tuition fees definitely helped to mobilise and energise the student vote and was critical in some seats. Alongside this was a wider sense young people were being directly addressed, that their worldview was important. As one young graduate who had been desperately looking for work for over a year put it to me: ‘I am looking for politicians to be as angry as I am.’
As we know, millennials and their younger generation Z siblings face some tough challenges getting on the housing ladder and are earning lower incomes for longer than previous generations. Young people have been disproportionately impacted by austerity. And none more than disadvantaged young people who feel furthest away from power. They have seen their support slowly eroded – an end to the education maintenance allowance, loss of housing benefits and a decimation of youth services. A group of young homeless in their late teens told me shortly before the election that they felt like they had been forgotten. The Labour campaign spoke – literally – directly to them.
Corbyn’s personal style was also an important pull factor. In the interviews I did there was a sense that politicians did not speak to or for them. Corbyn managed to break through that and connect. They saw him as an authentic, principled voice that stood out for a generation feeling let down by the status quo.
‘He looks so scruffy and normal’, one young man said to me and, unlike my grandmother, he meant it as a compliment.
At the same time increasing diversity in our Labour candidates with more young, female and ethnic minority candidates means the Labour party increasingly looks more like those it seeks to represent. In Hampstead and Kilburn, a marginal London seat, our young female member of parliament of Bangladeshi heritage, Tulip Siddiq, was inundated with young volunteers who felt personally inspired by her.
Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer showed that 68 per cent of 16-to-18 year olds have high trust for people in their 20s, compared to just 21 per cent of the general population. Labour managed to find spokespeople who had credibility with young voters and could communicate in different forms, from grime artists to YouTubers.
I am deeply excited by the rise in youth votes. For the Labour party this is a generation that broadly shares our values. They are more open and progressive than any generation before them.
But the challenge will be how we harness and maintain the energy this election has created. Youth campaigns can be like a hurricane breaking up the status quo but it has proved difficult to embed their voices within our institutions. They are still less likely to join trade unions or political parties. Their engagement in politics is sporadic and issue based. They put their politics into practice through direct action, storytelling and music.
The prize of engaging young voters is enormous and we saw a glimpse of in this campaign. There is a groundswell of creative thinking and political energy ready to be mobilised.
However the structures of politics do not make it easy for new voices to influence and lead. The young people I spoke to wanted ownership of political campaigns, a chance for self-expression and real power. We will need to open up how we make decisions and keep the values and ideas of young voters as a guiding light.
As a Labour party this is not about supporting a narrative of generational warfare. Getting behind young people has appeal for all who care about our future and for parents and grandparents watching their adult children struggle. In London 2012 the message of ‘inspire a generation’ ended up inspiring a country. The optimism of the young can be infectious if we are brave enough to follow it.
Georgia Gould is leader of the London borough of Camden and author of Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens our Future. She tweets at @Georgia_Gould
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