What Do Young Voters Want?

By Justine Sachs and Aaliyah Zionov

Source: Radionz (2016)

The 2014 general election was abysmal in terms of youth turnout. Less than 50 percent of voters aged 18–29 cast a vote. This year, youth turnout is on track to be even worse, as so far only 65 percent of eligible voters aged 18–24 have even enrolled.

There are a number of organisations working hard to incentivise young people to vote. Endless articles and thinkpieces have tried to explain why New Zealanders aged 18–24 are not enthusiastic about exercising their democratic rights. Unfortunately, the discussion on New Zealand youth’s electoral abstentionism fundamentally misses the root of the problem. The focus on youth representation in parliament and online voting offers a shallow, surface level understanding of the issue. When people suggest online voting as a solution, what they are really suggesting is that the only barrier to youth electoral participation is ease of accessibility. They assume that the only reason young people do not vote is because we are lazy and indifferent. Not only is this assertion based on nothing but conjecture, but it is also deeply insulting to a group of people they are supposedly trying to win over. Similarly, it is obtuse to argue that the solution to increasing youth participation is better representation. Young people are not homogenous. We come from all walks of life and may have very different political interests..

So the question remains: what do young people want? Across the sea in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpectedly successful campaign almost saw the UK Labour Party in government. His success was driven primarily by an unprecedented increase in the youth vote. While the New Zealand Labour party were ready to congratulate Corbyn on a successful campaign, they have been reluctant to adopt the same policies and platform that made the campaign successful in the first place. What we have seen instead is an increasing pile-up of proof that Labour has no interest in campaigning on a progressive platform. The Labour Party are fixated on stemming immigration levels; they are “committed” to “affordable housing” while insisting that house prices should not drop; and they are insistent on keeping the unfair 90 day trial period. A small concession to the working class in the form of a pledge to increase the unlivable minimum wage by a tiny amount amount cannot hide Labour’s clear lack of interest in fighting for vulnerable people.

Meanwhile, the tide has turned against neoliberalism all over the world. It is no longer popular to deregulate markets and privatise public services. In the United Kingdom, young people turned out in droves to vote for unambiguously left-wing policies, and self-professed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is currently the most popular politician in the United States. Twenty years ago, socialism looked like a dead ideology, consigned to history books, but today people born twenty years ago are happily embracing the label. What we are seeing is an increasing political generational divide between emerging socialist “millennials” and their conservative “baby boomer” counterparts. How can we explain this sudden shift? It does not suffice to just look at their ages and make sweeping claims about young people being naïve or idealistic. We must look at the dynamics of class and at political economy as a whole.

The generational divide, which appears as just a strange political rift, is really a class divide. We need class driven politics to address the issue of youth participation in politics. Homelessness, poverty, inequality, debt and an ever-present lack of opportunity has driven youth apathy. Wealth inequality has grown exponentially in the past 40 years. The cost of living has soared, while wages have stagnated and not increased in line with inflation. People are working longer hours for less. At the same time, Auckland is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. But this does not affect all New Zealanders equally: today, the richest 10 percent own 60 percent of the country’s wealth. The Mike Hosking’s of the world can try to explain away these harsh realities by blaming poverty on ‘reckless spending habits’ or avocado addictions, but the truth is that there has been a massive upward transfer of wealth to the top 10 percent in the last few decades. It’s severely impacted our welfare, our education, and our overall quality of life.

Young people are overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of this massive inequality, and we are turning away from a system that is failing to provide for even our basic necessities. To make up for the simple fact that wages no longer allow us to live with dignity, we are constantly invited to take on massive amounts of debt in education, housing, and healthcare. We are forced to speculate on our hard work in the hopes that it will eventually allow us to live comfortably. By now, this myth of meritocracy has been proven false again and again. Young people subsisting on precarious work, on low wages, and on meagre benefits can plainly see that, no matter how hard you work, the cards are stacked against you.

It is laughable, then, that we are often told that we will become fiscally conservative as we get older. Once again, critics are confusing people’s age with their actual economic and social situation “Baby boomers” got more conservative as they grew older simply because they accumulated wealth, and we do not accept that “maturity” has anything to do with it. The social mobility enjoyed by the previous generation was a result of policies such as social housing, free education, high wages and secure employment.Young people enjoy none of these things today. As a result, millennials have lower standards of living than our parents even if we work just as hard. It is cruel to categorise young people as “lazy” just because we are not given the same opportunities.

Electoral politics in New Zealand is failing to understand what’s really going on. The Labour Party, supposedly named because they represent the interests of workers, cannot even admit that there is a problem. They expect young people to turn out and vote for them on the 23rd of September for absolutely no reason. Instead of trying to galvanise and inspire the one million people who did not vote last election, Labour has attempted to court National voters with centrist and right-wing policies. The result? This week Labour reported the lowest polling result since the Colmar Brunton poll for One News was founded. It is truly baffling that Labour thinks wealthy New Zealanders would want to vote for a milquetoast version of National when they can just vote for the real thing. Meanwhile, the Green party has put forward promising policies aimed at improving social welfare and combatting student hardship. While we commend this as a step in the right direction, we believe that it is too little, too late. The young working class is uninspired by their electoral options and they have every right to be. The Budget Responsibility Rules, signed by both Labour and the Greens, signalled a clear commitment to the status quo. Although they tell us that this will ensure “quality of life, prosperity, and security,” we see it for what it is: a status quo that sees young people stagnating in precarious low paid work and consigned to renting in crowded, mouldy flats for the rest of our lives. It simply demonstrates the cowardice of these two nominally left-wing parties, who are reluctant to imagine a better world. They will not get the youth vote as long as they refuse to acknowledge that capitalism has failed to provide a decent standard of living for young New Zealanders.

Declining voter turnout across demographics means that an increasing minority of voters are deciding the fate of a silent majority who are not being represented or advocated for in parliamentary politics. There is not any magic fix to increasing youth turnout. Young people are not lazy. We are workers, we are renters, we are in debt and we are struggling. If you want young people to vote, return to class politics and advocate for the many, not the few. Young people demand political change. For starters, we demand social housing, social welfare, fully-funded fee free education, a living wage, and an adequately funded healthcare system. We demand a fair and egalitarian society for all. We demand socialism.