By Daisy Powell
One of the biggest surprises of last week’s general election was the turnout of young people. Although too early for reliable data on the demographics of those voting, the overall turnout rate was thought to be 69% with the youth vote widely reported as 72%.
The significance of this development cannot be overstated. In recent years the youth vote has dropped like a stone, falling from over 60% in the early 1990s to an average of 40% over the previous three general elections (2001, 2005 and 2010), although recovering to 58% in 2015.
It’s always been assumed that young people are not political, and turned off by party politics. They have certainly been poorly served by parties with little focus on their needs and wants. Now we are beginning to realise young people have been political all along but the rigid way we do politics in the UK has not made it easy to engage; registering and re-registering, voting in the middle of exams and a lack of policy speaking to their concerns. Yet with a concerted effort from a whole bunch of organisations to get young people registered and voting, and the figurehead of a politician with grass roots appeal like Jeremy Corbyn, and we are looking at a newly engaged electorate.
This ’youthquake’ is a fantastic development. This is how a real democracy should work. What makes it particularly exciting is that facing Brexit talks, this is the time we really need young people to be engaged in politics. We need them to be shouting their views loudly. And now they are voting too, political parties will have to start paying attention. Policymakers will have to shift focus from over 65s and start to think what they can offer young people. This could really change the shape of future politics.
Immediately after the election results, one MP dismissed young people voting as pure selfishness, Labour had bought the youth vote with free tuition fees – as if the motives of other portions of the electorate were nobler and that voting wasn’t always based on a degree of personal interest. This reaction also demonstrated two other things. Firstly, how ignorant many politicians are of young people in general. Plenty don’t go to University, and don’t aspire to either. Young people aren’t a one dimensional student vote.
Secondly, it indicated just how used the political classes have got to disregarding young people. Now that they do seem to be voting, the reaction sounds a lot like resentment and the start of a blame culture. Former director general of the CBI Lord Digby Jones tweeted “How do the young who flocked to Corbyn explain that they voted for a party led by people who have sympathised with terrorists, are anti-business (who are expected to pay for all the giveaways)…” Why shouldn’t young people vote on the basis of who is offering them the most? Transactional voting is at the heart of many manifesto promises – it was no coincidence that the triple lock on pensions benefitted a group who always vote in high numbers.
It’s great that the youth vote is shaking things up. The big question is how to keep young people engaged in politics when often so little changes as a result of voting. We need to guard against disillusionment. But with more political turbulence, instability and Brexit around the corner, the habit of voting is one young people may be needing again and again.
All views expressed in our blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NYA.