Underpaid, overworked and drowning in debt: you wonder why young people are voting again?

Pushed too far? PA/Dominic Lipinski

The 2017 general election was highly unusual as far as the youth vote was concerned. The Labour party won 65% – the lion’s share – of the youth vote. The nearest comparisons are with 1964 and 1997. In both those years, Labour took 53% of the youth vote. In the 2015 election, just two years earlier, the party had won just 38% of the youth vote.

How the under-30s vote

Tracking the youth vote between 1964 and 2017. Paul Whiteley, Author provided

The contrast between the youth vote in the 2010 and 2017 shows how radically youth voting patterns have changed. During this period, their turnout rose by 19%. This change in youth participation, combined with a massive swing to Labour, has unsurprisingly led some to talk of a “youthquake”.

What could have brought this about? Political and cultural drivers are clearly at work. That includes youth support for remaining in the EU and their preference for Jeremy Corbyn over Theresa May. Only a quarter of 18-to-25s voted to leave in the EU referendum compared with two-thirds of those over 65.

But economic drivers also played a crucial role. Young people, put simply, have lost out both in the economy and government policy making. Since 2010 the British government has been preoccupied with shoring up its political support among middle aged and retired voters. It has largely ignored the concerns of the young, very often dismissing them because, in the past, most young people did not vote. That all changed in 2017.

Paying for education

One obvious driver of youth voting is the rapid increase in student debt imposed by a government which sought to privatise higher education during the austerity years. Tuition fees were originally introduced in 1998 and had reached £3,000 per year by 2006-7. At the time, it was widely accepted that the considerable graduate premium which existed in lifetime earnings justified a contribution to the costs of higher education by the beneficiaries.

But things radically changed in 2010 when the coalition government introduced a fees cap of £9,000. Ironically, this increased privatisation of the costs of higher education was accompanied by ever-increasing regulation, so that the less the state supports higher education the more it wants to control it. This trend culminated in a 2016 proposal to scrap maintenance grants and raise fees to £9,250 while at the same time charging interest rates of 6.1% on student loans at a time when the Bank of England base rate was 0.25%.

Such a reckless disregard for the interests of more than 40% of the under-25s is quite hard to understand, particularly in light of the fate of the Liberal Democrats following their u-turn on tuition fees after they joined the coalition in 2010.

The bias against youth was not confined to university students. In April 2016, the minimum wage was raised to £7.50 an hour, but this change only applied to employed workers over the age of 25. The minimum wage for apprentices under the age of 19 was a meagre £3.50 and hour and this did not change. Young people were essentially ignored.

Corbyn catches up with some fans. PA

Another aspect of the same issue relates to the self-employed, none of whom receive the minimum wage. Historically, self-employed workers have been older than the workforce average age – but, in recent years, self-employment has grown faster among the under 25s than any other group with the exception of 40-year-olds. Between 2008 and 2015 the number of self-employed people in the UK increased from 3.8 million to 4.6 million people with part-time self-employment, often synonymous with under-employment, increasing by 88%. Thus young people have lost out on the increases in minimum wages, with many of them being underemployed and working part-time for wages that are well below average.

Are you even listening?

It was, therefore, no surprise that when the pollsters YouGov recently asked citizens to rank their priorities for the country, 46% of 18-24 year olds selected increasing the minimum wage to approximately £9 per hour. That compared to a national figure of 28% (and 19% among pensioners).

In our panel survey of the electorate conducted immediately before the 2017 general election, we asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “The government treats people like yourself fairly”. We found that 18% of the under-25s agreed with this statement compared with 28% of the over-65s. In contrast, 49% of the under-25s disagreed with it compared with 32% of the over-65s. Youth have not only been left behind but many of them are aware of this fact and have a sense of grievance arising from it. The stark difference in the responses of youth and pensioners to this statement is related to the differences in the government’s treatment of them.

The so called “triple lock” on pensions was introduced by the coalition government in 2010. It was a guarantee to increase the state pension every year by the rate of inflation, average earnings or by a minimum of 2.5% whichever was the highest. By 2016 it produced a situation in which retired people had average incomes £2,500 higher than in 2007/8, while those who were not retired earned an average of £300 less over this period. The latter reflects the fact that real wages have been flat-lining for more than a decade.

Given all this it is no surprise that the 2017 election was a case of youth striking back.

Paul Whiteley is speaking at Youthquake 2017! Can young voters transform the UK’s political landscape? a joint event between The Conversation and The British Academy on October 9, 2017.

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