Every time a British election rolls around, it elicits a wave of hand-wringing editorials about young voters’ poor turnout at the polls relative to older people. But this year, there are signs things could be different.
The 2016 EU referendum saw 64% of 18 to 24-year-olds turn out to vote, a higher percentage than at any general election since 1992. Why? One possible explanation is that the referendum felt far more important than run-of-the-mill general elections. For once, the vote transcended the endless squabbling among political parties and quarrelling representatives; offering young people a vote on the future identity of the UK.
This matches recent data indicating that young people aren’t motivated by engagement with Westminster politics because it’s hierarchical and remote, the province of self-serving elitists with little interest in their lives.
But the same research also found that young people are still interested in decisions that affect their lives. They aren’t in fact politically apathetic; they simply don’t participate in traditional forms of politics because they feel marginalised and unable to shape political discussions in their interest. Many young people prefer alternative political activities, such as demonstrating, which make them feel more directly involved.
The high youth turnout in the EU referendum relative to other elections would certainly imply that when confronted with an important choice and encouraged that their votes will matter, younger people will turn out.
Young people’s participation is very much influenced by the difficult odds they face in radically changing employment and labour markets. Many of them are pessimistic about their own ability to improve their lives; the Resolution Foundation dubbed them the “stagnation generation”, who may even wind up worse off than the previous generation thanks to the withdrawal of state support and policies. The Institute for Public Policy Research calls the resulting gap in participation “political inequality”.
Yet, even though young adults occupy an increasingly perilous economic position, doubt their efficacy in electoral politics and are disadvantaged by their smaller cohort size, there’s still every reason for them to vote.
Why should young adults vote?
The increasing economic pressures on young people are greatly exacerbated by the withdrawal of state support, and the dearth of policies that address younger Britons’ very specific problems. We know, however, that politicians will provide policies that target large blocs of high-turnout voters, which means that unless young people start voting their views are likely to be further marginalised in the future.
Anyone who thinks young voters don’t have the power to influence politicians is underestimating their potential electoral power. Research before the 2015 general election by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Intergenerational Foundation suggested that between ten and 83 MPs were vulnerable to surges in turnout among younger constituents.
Similar data are not available for the 2017 general election, which was called in a surprise move rather than scheduled, but it’s a reasonable assumption that the same effect holds true this year. So will young people be a real force at this year’s polls, or will they turn out at their usual low rate?
For those who want to see them make their voices heard, there are signs for cautious optimism. Hansard’s 2016 Audit of Political Engagement found that 39% of young people say they are certain to vote, the highest level in the 12 years the audit has been published. Similarly, a YouGov poll conducted just days before Theresa May called the June election found that 39% of young respondents saying they are certain to vote at the next polls – and since the election was announced, voters in the two youngest age groups have registered to vote at dramatically higher rates than their older counterparts.
Perhaps young Britons are finally about to make politicians sit up and take notice. Westminster may be ignoring them for now, but young adults in Britain have more power over their leaders than they might think.