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Young voters are on the march – here’s how to keep them coming back for more

I have two messages for you. The first is familiar. Believe the hype. The Youthquake is real. Young people are changing British politics.

For the second, I want to confess an unpopular opinion. I feel like I have to whisper it.

Here goes. Young turnout at the 2017 election was not that high. Our best guess is about 54% of 18-24s voted.

If you’re disappointed, don’t be. The excitement is real. The change is real. It’s just that it is not over yet. There is more work to do. Here is why you should be motivated.

It might not seem like it but 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds is a decent turnout. The 2015 election saw just 43% of this group vote. That’s a significant rise. But something has happened that is bigger than electoral turnout statistics. In 12 months, the perception of the young person has been turned on its head. We are imagining them differently. After at least 20 years, we are beginning to acknowledge them as fellow citizens.

Let’s look at a before-and-after account of the young person in UK politics. Rewind two years and watch Russell Brand meet Ed Miliband, for a younger audience, on YouTube ahead of the 2015 general election. The first topic of discussion is engagement – apathy, the history of the vote, the Suffragettes, and so on.

The old politics of youth tells young people they are the problem. It says: the election is ready for you. You just aren’t doing it right. We will give you politicians to hear your voice. They are in Westminster. Vote for them. If you don’t, you’re not doing your bit as citizens, so you deserve everything you get.

Ed meets Russell forever ago.

Fast forward to 2017 and watch grime artist JME meet Jeremy Corbyn. The first question in their interview is actually for JME from the Labour leader: “Are you vegan?” Their political talk builds out of that everyday perspective.

JME talks veganism (and other stuff) with JC.

The new politics of youth puts real life first. It’s not about whether you wear a red tie or a blue tie. It’s about whether you have a home to live in and what you believe in. And what you love. Jeremy Corbyn and JME speak about education as creativity, not just something for your CV.

And most of all, the new politics of youth recognises austerity. It says: we left you out in the cold in the crisis. But we realise it. And we know we must make you part of reconstruction.

The survivor generation

This approach speaks to today’s young people because they are a generation of survivors. This is the first generation who can expect worse living conditions than their parents since World War II. They were hit worst by the economic crash and yet not consulted about the recovery. Even if you speak to the most “engaged” young people – party activists, youth council members, and so on – they tend to feel that politics leaves them out and that what they do is get by in their everyday lives.

Our young survivors think differently about the vote. Older generations have long been deeply cynical about British politicians but they’ve always been more willing to vote for one they didn’t trust. During the years of the Iraq war, the expenses scandals, the broken pledge on tuition fees and the long crunch of austerity, older generations were reluctant, but they kept voting. Young people stayed away from the ballot box.

A lot of people will remember Labour’s campaign in 2017 for the bells and whistles. The rallies and the singing at Glastonbury. But the big change, and the most influential part of the campaign was the shift in policy towards reconstruction after austerity. This was a campaign that came out with solutions: reform to housing policy, rolling back tuition fees, nationalisation and rebuilding.

Labour’s campaign also started to bring young people back into democracy as movers and shakers. It recognised them as survivors and invited them not just to support the recovery, but made them a headline part of it. We see that in the diversity of Labour candidates, the representation of young people by young candidates, and the resurgence of young activism driving party policy, not just handing out pamphlets. Two thirds of Labour MPs attended a comprehensive school. 45% of Labour MPs are women, and 12% are identified by Operation Black Vote as of black or minority ethnicity.

Hope and reconstruction

Whether you perceive a young turnout of 54% as a large rise or a small one, it was a surprise to everyone except those of us who said young people were waiting for something more than a celebrity endorsement and a cringeworthy slogan. They wanted more than a voice. They wanted recognition of the economic crash they had survived, the precarious contracts and poor working conditions they endure, and a recovery that included them.

Young people are surviving an economic crisis, one which coincides with durable inequalities like those of gender and race. These should be driving democracy towards what young people need, which is hope, recovery and reconstruction.

A surge to 54% shows potential. The next step is about organising and mobilising that potential. One success of the Conservatives in government has been their neighbourhood plans for local democracy. Are young people enabled to take the lead? How do we empower young people to make a change in the process and politics of Brexit? Are cities involving young people in their budgets? Are unions organising young workers?

I think the youthquake at the ballot box is here to stay. Political parties will, after all, be hunting their votes. Real change, though, requires more than a cross in a box from our young generation.

We can expect some of their work to be familiar: it will be social entrepreneurship, or through parties and unions, through faith groups or charities. Some will be surprising or unfamiliar, like the Grime4Corbyn campaign or the direct representation of young people in politics by young candidates.

For too long, the youngest citizens have been left out. Now is the time to put democratic power back in their hands.

Benjamin Bowman 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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