Young voters are a big part of Labour’s Scottish problem

Labour can almost count its young Scottish voters on one hand. Scottish Government, CC BY-SA

One of the notable features of the Scottish referendum was the decision to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote for the first time. They were enthusiastic participants, voting in higher proportions than the other under-35 groups.

Sceptics said it would not last once these young people were being asked to take part in a normal, less exciting election. But based on a large survey in February by my team, this does not appear to be the case.

We found that far higher proportions of Scottish 18 to 24 year-olds are planning to vote in the general election than in England, which suggests that the referendum has had a lasting impact (18 and 19 year-olds were in favour of independence by 65% to 34%, while that proportion was 57% to 38% among 20 to 24 year-olds).

This makes the difference in voting intention even larger than that between adults in England and Scotland in general (63% say they are certain to vote in England, compared to 76% in Scotland). And the fact that the gap is biggest with the 18 and 19 year-olds is particularly interesting.

Political affiliations

As part of our survey, we asked our respondents “which political party, if any at all, do you feel closest to?” Among 18 to 24 year-old Scottish respondents, the clear winner was the Scottish National Party (SNP), on 28%.

Next highest was the 21% who did not feel close to any party and then the 14% who favoured the Scottish Greens. The rest of the parties all polled at below 10%, with a further 12% of respondents saying they did not know or preferred not to say.

This must be rather worrying for Scottish Labour, which fared no better than the Conservatives on 8% (or 12% once you strip out the “don’t knows”). This stands in contrast to 18 to 24 year-old English respondents, where Labour was the party that the largest proportion felt close to (25%).

Favourite parties of 18-24s

Parties polling below 5% are counted as ‘other’ University of Edinburgh

This is noticeably different to the Guardian/ICM poll that came out earlier in the week, which showed 27% Labour support in Scotland. This was a long way behind the SNP’s 43%, but much healthier for Labour than what the younger voters in our survey were saying (though note that the surveys asked slightly different things: “which party do you feel closest to?” versus “which party will you vote for in the general election?”).

What does this tell us? Just as among the population as a whole, left-of-centre voters in Scotland have been shifting away from Labour towards SNP and Green. But among younger voters, Labour has been hit particularly hard.

Apart from the SNP, a disproportionate beneficiary are the Greens, which are on 17% after you strip out “don’t knows” and non-identifiers from our figures among 18 to 24 year-olds, compared to just 6% among adults overall (and 3% of all adults who said they would vote for them according to the ICM poll).

Young voters, young danger

I should say at this point that these figures come with a health warning. Our survey had a large enough sample of 18 to 24 year-olds in both Scotland (253) and England (736) for us to be able to make simple comparisons between the two nations. But in samples of this size, margins of error obviously are not unsubstantial, so it is better to concentrate on bigger variations than smaller ones.

The most important points from our survey certainly do fall into the category of bigger variations, however. The fact that far larger proportions of younger voters in Scotland are preparing to vote in May than elsewhere in the UK should create a strong impetus for all parties to take them seriously. Not only will they be a somewhat larger group of voters now than usual, their political orientation could affect the future too.

So Labour (and the other parties) need to ask themselves what they are doing to woo this group. If the answer is that they are focusing mainly on other demographics, this may exacerbate a poor result for Labour in May.

Since this most likely means more seats for the SNP, it will not directly benefit the Conservatives, since the nationalists have said they would co-operate with a red government (if certain conditions are fulfilled) but not a blue one.

But it could certainly give the SNP more clout in Westminster and make a Miliband premiership more beholden to the party. However this plays out, the point is this: if Labour fares poorly with younger demographics in Scotland, they cannot claim they have not been warned.