It’s well-known that younger voters lean much more heavily towards ‘Remain’ than ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum debate. But will enough of them take part to swing the result? And, given that the decision we make as a nation on 23 June will affect younger people the most, why don’t they care more?
British Future’s ‘Voice of a Generation’ project with the Daily Mirror spent last year travelling the UK finding out what young people – those who would vote for the first time in 2015 – think about politics. The results were encouraging: in the north and south and among young people from more and less affluent backgrounds, we found that they did care about the political issues that affect them: jobs and the economy, housing and education. What we also found, however, was a distinct feeling of distrust and disconnection from formal politics.
Most young people don’t trust politicians and don’t believe the promises they make. Many feel that political leaders don’t care about them or even bother talking to them – and hence feel little tribal attachment to the main political parties. YouGov research for British Future found that young people feel the political elite pays more attention to big business (59%), pensioners (17%), homeowners (11%) and even celebrities (10%) than to young people. Only 4% of 17-21 year olds surveyed felt that politicians pay most attention to them.
Three-quarters, however, say they would be more likely to vote if they felt politicians listened to them, or if they felt it would make a difference to their lives. They do recognize that political issues, including the question of whether Britain should remain part of the EU, are important – but many also take their democratic responsibilities quite seriously and don’t feel they know enough about the EU debate to form a strong opinion. That may explain why so many answer pollsters’ questionnaires with ‘Don’t know’.
They are also less likely to vote. While youth turnout increased in the 2015 election and organisations like Bite the Ballot continue to do great work engaging young people and encouraging them to register to vote, they remain less likely to turn out than their parents and certainly less so than their grandparents. This is a concern for those who care about the future of our democracy and the legitimacy of the referendum itself, as well as those in the Remain camp worried about whether their vote will bother turning out in June.
The way that the referendum debate is playing out in the media doesn’t help. The people we see on our screens arguing about the pros and cons of the EU are predominantly the same older, white men in suits that have failed to engage young voters on party political issues. The arguments they make – drawing heavily on macro economic figures that mean little to most ordinary voters, or digging deep into the archive of EU treaty law – simply don’t cut through. Clause x of the Maastricht treaty or percentage x of GDP just isn’t something that keeps your average undecided voter, old or young, awake at night.
For both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’, the challenge of reaching younger voters is not altogether different to that of reaching other undecided voters.
For ‘Leave’, this might mean dialing-down the focus on immigration – young people are more likely to be relatively at ease with modern, diverse Britain as it’s what they’ve grown up with – and making a positive case for a dynamic, inclusive and forwards-looking Britain that can prosper outside the EU, addressing some of the uncertainties about what that might look like in practice. ‘Leave’ will need to convince younger voters that it is as comfortable as they are with modern Britain, not the Britain of 50 years ago.
‘Remain’ faces a similar challenge to present a positive message about a Britain that can thrive within the EU. One lesson they could learn from the Independence referendum in Scotland is that young people will turn out to vote if a campaign succeeds in inspiring and harnessing their energy with a message they can believe in. George Osborne or the Bank of England warning that GDP may be dented, or house prices might fall after Brexit, is not going to do that. One suspects that few 18-25 year olds feel the economy is working terribly well for them at the moment anyway, as they struggle to pay off student debt and wonder whether a home of their own will ever be a viable proposition.
Getting out of Westminster and meeting young voters may be one answer. One clear recommendation from the Voice of a Generation project was that young people expect politics to come to them, not the other way round. Boris Johnson’s Battlebus may help do this for Leave, as may the campaigning of UK Universities for Remain. Both may prove important, as in a close-run contest the votes of young people – if they cast them – could make the difference.