The #GE2017 ‘Youthquake’ — did the forgotten generation finally speak up?

Was the UK’s 2017 general election a turning point for young voters?

UK Politics

By Joe Perry

The 2000 student fees protest: are young people once again wielding political power? (Photo: Wikipedia)

‘Under-30s love Corbyn’ one unnamed Tory MP told the Huffington Post, but ‘they don’t care enough to get off their lazy arses to vote for him’.

Personally, I feel particularly offended by this comment. Whether genuine or not, the above quotation represents (until recently) an increasingly common association between youthfulness and political apathy.

Over the past decade, young people have been consistently on the losing side of politics as many graduates and school leavers are left facing a future riddled with student debt yet offering a fraction of the job and homeownership opportunities available a decade before. I find it particularly worrying that this particular MP feels young Labour voters posed less of a threat because the majority were too ‘lazy to vote’. A cynic would argue that politicians only act when there are votes to be won. In this case, young people are just not voting enough to have their voices heard.

However, the recent general election initially seemed like a turning point. Only a few hours after the votes had been cast David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham) circulated a rumour that 72% of 18–25 year olds had gone to the ballot box.

David Lammy’s infamous tweet (Photo: BBC, Reality Check: Has there been a surge in youth turnout?)

As most commentators waited patiently for more reliable statistics, some optimistic journalists began to write about the possibility of the 2017 general election having been a ‘Youthquake’- a reference to a 1960s fashion movement in which young people suddenly began to have more influence on culture and the arts.

In an article published in the Guardian the day after the election, the author claimed that ‘Britain’s younger generation [had] flexed their political muscles to real effect for the first time’. According to the author, young people had voted, and more importantly, they had voted for Labour. Tellingly, a few days later Jeremy Corbyn smugly told Andrew Marr that he had ‘youth on his side’.

However, as the main polling organizations published their reports it became increasingly clear that Lammy’s ‘72%’ was inaccurate and the hope of a ‘Youthquake’ began to peter out. Ipsos Mori, for instance, estimated that only 58% of 18–24 year olds had voted in the 2017 election. Similarly, YouGov found that out of over 50,000 participants, only 57% of the 18–24 year olds had voted. Whilst both reports believe the voter turnout for young people had increased between 2015 and 2017 (Ipsos Mori predicted only 43% of 18–24 year olds voted in 2015), it was certainly not the ‘Youthquake’ that many had predicted or hoped for.

I am not a huge fan of polling. I am certainly not keen on placing too much weight on their results. Ipsos Mori, for instance, admit in their report ‘How Britain Voted in 2017’ that ‘estimating turnout is one of the hardest challenges’ they face — polls are far more likely to interview politically engaged people than ‘those who are disengaged’. As a consequence, it is likely that even fewer youths voted.

One thing did seem pretty certain however: young people, for the most part, voted Labour. YouGov, for instance, declared age to be the ‘new dividing line in British politics’ — ‘for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around nine points and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by nine points’ (see graph below). Similarly, Ipsos Mori reported age to be biggest dividing factor ‘seen since records began in 1979’. Similar oberservations were then reiterated through almost every other polling agency: NME, Sky and Lord Ashcroft’s polls all found that when young people did vote, they voted overwhelmingly for Labour.

Age: the ‘new dividing line in British politics’ (Photo: YouGov, The Demographics Diving Britain)

A brief comparison of the Conservative and Labour manifesto may give you a good insight as to why: within the first page of Labour’s manifesto, young people are mentioned multiple times as a demographic in need of support: ‘young people are held back by debt and the cost of housing’ reads the second paragraph. Furthermore, the manifesto goes on to include a number of proposals directly targeted at young voters: the scrapping of tuition fees, ending of cuts to youth services and the building of more affordable homes for the ‘rent-to-buy’ schemes to work.

In contrast, the Conservative manifesto makes very little of the issues facing young people. In one rather telling excerpt, May refers to young people only from the perspective of winning votes from our parents: we must secure ‘the opportunities we want for our children and our children’s children’ read May’s opening remarks. When choosing who to vote for, it is important to feel as if politicians notice your issues and problems. As a young person reading the Conservative manifesto, this was particularly hard to feel.

Additionally, it is also worth mentioning that Labour particularly targeted young people through social media. I have written previously about the impact of social media on young people’s voting patterns and I would like to briefly return to this point — 61% of millennials rely on Facebook as their primary source of news and Corbyn handled his social media campaign expertly. On 17th June 2017, the Week reported that during the final week of campaigning, a quarter of UK Facebook users watched a Momentum video. Labour identified young voters as a target audience and did a fantastic job of speaking to them directly through social media - perhaps this could be the solution to engaging more young people in politics in future elections. In the end, more young people did turn out to vote. Unfortunately, there were not enough.

There was not a ‘Youthquake’ at the 2017 general election. Theresa May still maintained power whilst ignoring a number of very large elephants suspiciously hanging around number ten- many of which were of great concern to the young people of this country. Depressingly, 18–24 year olds were still the age cohort with the lowest voter turnout in the UK.

I ask you this: could Osborne and Cameron have afforded to raise tuition fees back in 2012 if young people were an important vote-winning demographic?

There was not a ‘Youthquake’ at the 2017 general election but by God do we need one. The Conservatives’ fragile deal with the DUP may yet trigger another election in a matter of months. So here is my message to all young people: your vote is your voice. Whatever political ideology you follow, please do not let your voice go unheard.