With two thirds of younger voters more likely to support Remain compared to one-third of over-55s, the forecast before the referendum was that the youth turnout would be a deciding factor for the outcome. The result in favour of Brexit, contrary (again) to the polling predictions, would therefore potentially indicate that lower numbers of younger people voted than expected. Estimates of the turnout of young voters aged between 18-24 range from 25-45%. Even at the higher end this is still vastly lower than 60 year olds. Does this mean the EU referendum campaigns failed to mobilise younger voters, and if so why not?
For me, Politics (large ‘P’, referring to the formal processes of government) has always seemed like a reality TV show. There are the super fans, dedicated champions who are vocal and certain about their views, there are others for whom it is a guilty pleasure and a spectator sport, and then the vast majority of everyone else who puts up with the shallow, antagonistic and polarised public debates that seem so far removed from the realities of everyday life.
The Referendum debate was no different. Both sides accused each other of the “politics of fear” whilst presenting contradictory arguments. I was astounded by the words of a former Government Minister, who when asked on the radio whether he thought that campaigners calling their opponents – politicians, business leaders, academics or other international experts – either ‘fools’ or ‘liars’ would undermine trust in politics, stubbornly defended his decision to do so.
Another Minister spoke at an event for young activists involved with an international development charity which I attended. In her speech she attendees to make sure they and their friends voted, because it was vitally important, and that “everyone needs to have their say” or the consequences would be dire. At the time it seemed somewhat condescending.
The millennial generation has so political (small ‘p’, relating to more general concepts of citizenship) agency already – we are educated than previous generations, make our choices with information at our fingertips thanks to the internet, we take globalisation and international mobility for granted, vote with our feet through our spending power, and have the power to make many other choices about the kind of citizens we want to be from volunteering to online petitions. In this sense no one vote is ever the be-all-and-end-all, or the only or ultimate chance to have a say in the world.
We are also used to making instant and easy decisions based on issues rather than more traditional partisan allegiances. In this sense perhaps the idea of a referendum is more appealing, but the mechanisms of the vote – offline, on one day only, with no solid facts base – were not in sync with the other ways we make our decisions.
But most importantly what was lacking from the debate was a positive, values-led case for the world which we want to achieve. While some parts of the Leave camp made it their key message to “take control” and change the status quo, the Remain side didn’t match these with messages that were similarly aspirational, instead focusing on what we would lose if Britain left the EU. So much more could have been said about the founding principles of the EU, the shared political and cultural heritage with other EU members, the goals that are served through sharing and pooling resources – and sovereignty – and the ambitions for solidarity, friendship and trust across national borders.
Instead, the key messages to Remain centred around facts and figures presented by a raft of experts – mostly related to the economic consequences of a Brexit. This isn’t about distrusting those expert opinions – but we can look up the same facts and figures on Wikipedia, whereas values and passion are harder to google.
Many younger voters have spent the days after the referendum frustrated, sad, angry with the motives of others and perhaps disillusioned with the electoral process. The levels of passion, outcry and sometimes vitriol on social media have run high amongst people who rarely would have publicly announced an interest in politics before. This is not surprising given the outcome of the vote. But here’s the thing – the outcome of the vote is not the outcome. By this I don’t mean that there will be a second referendum, or that Brexit will never happen, but simply that the vote to Leave does not determine the basis of how we renegotiate our relationship with Europe and others. It is our elected politicians in the UK who will be negotiating these new terms.
We have one of the most sophisticated democratic systems in the world. And sometimes we take it for granted. Perhaps this referendum was the wake up call that younger people needed, and it certainly doesn’t have to be a pointless one. The Brexit vote and the events that have followed have triggered the most profound political shift in our lifetimes. And with that comes countless opportunities to have a say in some of the changes that will come. As the slogan from Bite the Ballot goes, “if you don’t do politics, it will do you”. Now is the chance for millennials to demand a new political settlement.
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post