Despite the contrasting messages being shared by both the leave and remain campaigns during the EU Referendum, one message which prevailed across the board was that the vote would be a once in a lifetime opportunity for ordinary people to have a voice. Indeed, the government has since helpfully reminded us that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and dismissed calls for a second referendum.
During the campaign, I was firmly rooted in the remain camp and spent some time volunteering for Stronger In. As a 21-year-old student, I have been affected by the cutting of EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) payments, the tripling of university tuition fees and a recession that spanned most of my teenage years. As far as I could tell, leaving the EU was a dangerous gamble – and one that could hit young people the hardest. I didn’t think it was right that youngsters should face yet more uncertainty.
As it happens, many young people took the same approach as me and voted to remain in the EU – yet the majority of older voters opted for Brexit and were enough to turn the tide. This, of course, leaves an important question for the countless number of under 35s who were proudly part of the 48% of remainers; how can young people now be involved in the process of Brexit?
At a CoVi workshop in Birmingham – which had an even closer referendum result than the national result, with 49.5% voting to remain – I had a chance to talk about the kind of solutions that might ensure youngsters a greater voice in Brexit with a group of around 20 people. Mostly, our group was made up of students with an existing interest in politics, which led us to the first challenge – giving a voice to young people doesn’t mean giving a voice to one type of young person – there has to be a way to engage people who feel removed from politics. This was a central issue in the referendum vote itself, whereby many of those who voted for Brexit did so because they believed voting remain was simply a vote to support the status-quo and a type of politics that was more about the elite than their own communities.
The level of conversation and passion in the room was especially inspiring and with the facilitation of CoVi, we quickly broke off into small groups and spoke about our fears and developed ideas to solve some of the questions we each had about Brexit. In my own group, we chose to focus on engagement, since it seemed like such a profound problem, but other groups looked at different problems and solutions before pitching them at the end of the day.
One of the most important steps now, for both leave supporters and remainers, is to continue the energy that the referendum generated amongst young people. Something said during the workshop and echoed in my own experience, is that during the referendum, people could be heard discussing politics in the street, at the bus stop, or indeed over a drink more so than perhaps ever before. Another important step to take is to develop a way to translate the hopes, fears and expectations of young people to those who are making the decisions, whether that’s through events like this one, better attempts by the government and MP’s to talk to young constituents or more young voices in the media. This event was a great start, but we have to go further, particularly to involve those who felt most cut off from politics before the vote and surely feel no better today.
Whether we like it or not, the process of Brexit will create a legacy for under 35s who will be most affected by the referendum vote, and it is, therefore, essential to hardwire greater involvement in the process for young people. CoVi has set out on an admirable path and my biggest hope is that other organisations can make a similar effort to give a platform to young people in the coming months and years.