Younger voters politically energised by Brexit, but generational divide deepens

In advance of the general election on 8 June, James Sloam (Reader in Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London) assesses the appetite for politics and voting among the younger members of the electorate – and unearths some surprises

Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed a sharp decline in youth participation in general elections. Some 60% of 18–24 year olds voted in the 1992, compared to an average of 40% over the last four polls. As the graph below shows, the gap between youth and overall turnout has increased significantly during this period.

Young people voted in increasing numbers for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party (and lost), and around three-quarters of those 18–24 year olds who voted in the 2016 EU referendum wanted Britain to remain in the Union (and lost). The introduction of Individual Voter Registration in 2014, furthermore, saw over a million citizens (disproportionately young people) fall off the electoral roll. So there are many reasons to be concerned about the prospects for youth participation in the 2017 general election.

They ARE interested

However, there is overwhelming evidence to show that young people are interested in “politics” (more broadly defined) and engage in a whole multitude of civic and political activities: from demonstrations against university tuition fees to the boycotting of products that damage the environment, to campaigns against the closing of parks or youth clubs in local communities. So, young people are often interested in, and engaged in, key issues, but are put off by politicians and political parties.

New data from a Populus survey show that young people are very much engaged in the forthcoming general election. Indeed, they seem to be energised by Brexit, Trump, and the clear ideological divisions that have opened up between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.

The good news is that 18–24 year olds are more likely to vote in the 2017 general election than they were at a similar stage before the 2015 poll: 57% state that they are certain to vote compared to 46% two years ago. And 18–24 year olds are actually as likely to vote as 25–34 year olds and 35–44 year olds (though still well behind the over 45s – of whom around 80% are certain to vote).

This poll also explodes the misconception that young people are not interested in politics: 81% of 18–24 year olds claim that they are following the general election closely, compared to an average of 80% for all age groups (and only topped by the interest of the over-65 age group). This youth engagement in politics might well be driven by interest in Brexit: 88% of 18–24 year olds state that they are following Brexit negotiations closely – more than any other age group!

The Populus survey also shows that younger voters are following the general election and Brexit negotiations much more closely than the most popular entertainment programmes: 34% for Game of Thrones and 32% for Britain’s Got Talent. These figures illustrate that the popular claims that younger citizens are apathetic about and uninterested in politics – yet immersed in their own leisure pursuits – are plain wrong.

But are the political parties interested in young people?

In their manifestos, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens sought to appeal directly to this demographic through investment in education and housing. The Green Party, in particular, made a feature of youth issues in a dedicated section in its “Green Guarantee” and nine-page “Youth Manifesto”. By contrast, there was very little for young people in the Conservative Party manifesto beyond vague references to intergenerational justice, and almost nothing in the UKIP document.

These differences in emphasis on age cohorts in party manifestos are also reflected by unprecedented differences in support for the two main political parties by younger and older citizens. According to a recent YouGov poll, 49% of 18–24 year olds (who expressed support for a political party) intend to vote Labour, compared to 31% nationally and only 14% of over 65s. On the other hand, just 22% of 18–24 year olds support the Conservative Party, compared to 66% of over 65s. The figure below illustrates how (according at least to polling data collected in May, mid-campaign) the gap between youth support for Conservatives and Labour has widened dramatically since 2010 to a level unseen in recent political history.

So, younger voters are politically energised. NGOs like Bite the Ballot are helping to channel this enthusiasm for politics into youth voter turnout. However, it is incumbent upon all political parties to engage more effectively with younger citizens, and to capitalise on this renewed interest in electoral politics.