John Curtice, the political scientist, observed last week that the Labour Party was no longer the party of the worker. In fact, Curtice suggested, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had become the party of the youth. There is good reason for thinking this. A number of headline-grabbing manifesto pledges, including the removal of tuition fees, writing off student debt and promising to give 16-year olds the vote, have all indicated a shift away from the traditional Labour heartlands of the Industrial North. However, such a shift should not be overemphasised – youth voters remain chronically disengaged with politics.
Indeed, much was made of the 2017 election, which saw the youth mobilise to deny Theresa May and the Conservatives a majority. However, retrospective analysis of that election showed that voter turnout amongst 18-25-year olds only increased by 2.5 percentage points. And it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic shift in this election. There are two reasons for this: those that we might think of as unchangeable factors, and others that we might call changeable factors.
The unchangeable factors can be fairly neatly grouped into one general idea: young people are simply not exposed to politics as much as older voters. Young people will have had less experience with interest rates and paying taxes, and will have engaged less with the housing market. These are unchangeable because they are purely down to experience: younger people, on average, simply will not have had the chance to buy and sell multiple properties as older voters will have. Therefore, much of the ground that traditional politics is fought over is alien, or at least very new, to younger people. We will come back to this idea shortly.
With that said, engagement with politics shouldn’t be overegged. As Daniel Finkelstein put it recently, almost half (48%) of people have not heard of John McDonnell, and only 18% could accurately place Dominic Cummins. Though, we might conjecture, these numbers are like to be higher amongst younger voters, it doesn’t seem fair to argue that it is just young people who are disengaged.
On the other hand, we have the changeable factors. These can be grouped into two key ideas: the debates that we have and the way that we discuss them. As we noted a little earlier, the traditional battlegrounds for politics are ones that leave younger people at a disadvantage through their relative lack of engagement with those issues. Though the experience itself is unchangeable, the issues discussed are not. As we have seen, there has been a gradual shift towards issues that younger voters care about – climate change is an excellent example of this. However, modern political debates fail to pre-empt the issues that young people are likely to care about in the next few years, such as the changing demographic and the increasingly need to care for the elderly.
The Under-30s Question Time debate, aired on the BBC this week, might indicate a change in this trend, a “Youthquake 2.0” so to speak. But perhaps the biggest takeaways was the extent to which it was almost indistinguishable from a normal Question Time. The topics, though perhaps more engaging for under 30s, were not uniquely nor disproportionately more important to younger voters.
Likewise, the format itself lent itself to a standard political debate, as did the timing, where parties will have kept at least one eye on getting out a couple of smart general soundbites in the week before the election. This accounts for our second changeable factor – the way politics is done. Younger voters are clearly frustrated about the way the country is run. However, there remains a disconnect between young people and traditional politics. This is perhaps reflected by one of highlights of the Under-30s Question Time: the declaration from Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru leader, that he would make lying by politicians illegal. This idea captures a sense among young voters that politics is not “for” them. A theme that stretched right through the debate was that young people perceive modern political discourse as being built around political points scoring, spinning favourable arguments and ignoring problematic issues than enacting actual change. (This might also explain the popularity of Labour’s aspirational politics). This is an ill fit for a generation who have grown up with the ubiquity of the phrase “Google it” and access to truth at their fingertips.
The makeup of the new government will go a long way to shaping the engagement of younger voters in the years to come. Both parties have an opportunity to develop a different type of politics, one that must, ultimately, incorporate younger voters in a more collaborative way.
Luke Webb is an account executive at The PR Office.