Gen Y bother: is the EU referendum debate reaching the youth vote?


Date 22nd June 2016
Author Laura Slater


Last week, CoVi hosted a live studio recording with a packed audience. Chaired by CoVi’s Director Caroline Macfarland, the speakers were Sam Gyimah MP who is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Childcare and Education, Kirsty Blackman MP, Dr James Sloam from Royal Holloway University and Joshua Pugh from Bite the Ballot. Here Laura Slater, who was in the audience, picks out some of the key points from the discussion.

With the polls on a knife edge, those between the ages of 18 and 35 hold a decisive hand in determining whether Britain’s future lies inside or outside of the European Union. Yet this age group has been much less likely to vote in recent elections than over 35s. How have the EU referendum campaigns engaged generation Y so far?

The findings of CoVi’s interim report on youth and the EU referendum were presented by Programme Manager Katy Owen who argued that the tone of the debate has been overly negative so far. Her statistics showed that for every positive word in the press, there have been at least double the number of negative words or phrases (or for the Daily Mail, five times as many negative comments as positive).

CoVi found that the youth voice is missing in the debate. Topics young people tend to be most passionate about such as climate change and affordable housing have too often been lost behind reports of inter-party squabbling and disputed claims on how many millions are spent on the EU.

Another finding was that the most popular politician among the youth is Jeremy Corbyn, who has not been particularly vocal on the issue of the European referendum.

Kirsty Blackman, who is SNP MP for Aberdeen North, reflected on how this negativity is a stark contrast to the more jubilant Scottish referendum in 2014. The Scotland vote had everyone talking about it, from primary schools upwards and was a success for democracy, with an almost full turnout.

Joshua Pugh from Bite the Ballot conveyed his experiences of working with young people in the UK and how disengaged they feel, even those living in the London boroughs a stone’s throw from Westminster and a region where people in general tend to be more favourable towards staying in the EU.

Conservative MP Sam Gyimah advised younger people to persuade their elder counterparts who are more likely to vote leave by asking them not to compromise future opportunities such as finding their first job. Commenting on the difficulties involved in conveying convincing and clear messages he said: “voting in the referendum is a binary decision; the issues we are facing are not.”

He reminded the audience that it is the young people will live the longest with the outcome of the referendum next week.