Figures released by gov.uk have revealed that 57,987 people under 25 registered to vote on the 18th of April.
The landslide of new voters coincided with Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election on the 8th of June. As the table below shows, the day before only 2,465 people registered to vote, however in the twelve days since news broke, almost 215,000 young people have registered.
Table courtesy of gov.uk
At just under 58,000 new registrants, more young people registered than any other age group. Overall, just under 150,000 people registered to vote on the day, which amounted to the biggest total recorded on any one day since 2016’s divisive EU referendum campaign.
Graph courtesy of gov.uk
So, in light of this information, where has the idea that young people are not interested in politics come from?
Despite the UK record of 46,499,537 eligible electors being set for the referendum, only 64% of registered young people cast a vote at polling stations, compared to over 90% of over-65s.
In a report for Opinium, Bruter and Harrison noted that “the fact that young people usually tend to vote very significantly less than older ones is well-known”. The Electoral Commission confirmed that compared to 95.5% of over 65s on electoral registers, only 70.2% of 20-24 year olds were registered. (Based on figures obtained July 2014)
Soon after a Leave victory was announced, Sky News released a tweet stating that only 32% of young people cast a vote in the referendum. This created a massive backlash against all the young people who were unhappy about the result, with an Independent headline arguing “Young people – if you’re so upset by the outcome of the EU referendum, then why didn’t you get out and vote?”
It was later clarified in a further tweet from Sky that the figure above was based upon data obtained from a survey conducted for the 2015 General Election, well over a year before the referendum. Bruter and Harrison, however, still find value in this figure as “it tells us about what turnout could have been expected to be if young people behaved the way they usually do on the day of the vote. In truth, however, they did not”.
It is suggested, in a blog piece for the BBC by Professor John Curtice, that the amount of 18-25 year olds voting in the EU referendum was closer to the number of voters in other age groups when compared to data from the 2015 General Election.
Bruter and Harrison say “the question of whether young people voted or not is politically important for two critical reasons:
- because there continues to be a significant portion of younger voters who say that they are unhappy with the result of the referendum and want to be heard, and one of the key arguments that have been made in answer to them is: “they should have bothered to vote if they cared that much”, and
- because the Government chose not to give the right to vote to 16 and 17 year old’s in the referendum, and it is fair to ask whether allowing them to vote could have changed the result of the referendum or not.”
It is important to note that the 64% of registered young voters is suspected to be only eight points below the national average, and in the report Bruter and Harrison make the point that “the differential was certainly not more than in general elections, and quite probably less, suggesting that young people made at least as much and in fact probably more of an effort to vote in the EU referendum that they did in recent General Elections.” It seems that the issue does not concern whether or not young people voted or not in the referendum, but that their vote highlighted an unusual generational gap in how people vote.
Could this mark a change in patterns of youth voting? Based on the surge of youth registration, it could indicate so. This added to evidence presented by Bruter and Harrison that “16-17 year old’s (as well as 18-19 year old’s) are also significantly more likely to register that 20-24 year old’s”, and the wave of newly enfranchised eighteen year olds denied a vote in the referendum, the question remains whether this could this have an impact on the result of what is strongly believed to be a Conservative-dominated General Election.
According to a poll of close to 13,000 voters conducted by YouGov over two and a half weeks, if the election were tomorrow, those under 40 would overwhelmingly vote Labour.
The difference between Labour and Conservative voters is highest in 18-24 year olds, of whom 42% would vote Labour compared to 23% who plan to vote Conservative. This is against the 50% of over 65s who plan to vote Tory, whilst only 11% will vote Labour. Based on these figures, evidence of a generational split is undeniable.
So why, even when some polls show the Tories’ lead dropping by as much as 10 points, is this General Election still considered a guaranteed Conservative victory?
Beth Gray is an ambassador for the 45ForThe45th scheme, a movement dedicated to improving youth involvement in politics. The youth engagement organisation works on the premise of taking young people to work on the US Presidential Election to see if the UK could learn from the engagement levels of the USA, and see if we could replicate the levels of political excitement that candidates like Bernie Sanders created amongst the younger population.
“It isn’t that young people aren’t interested in politics, it’s that the political system isn’t interested in young people. Manifestos and public policy do not address the needs of young people and the system is structured in a complex and elitist manner as so to deter the engagement of the first-time voters. In the run up to GE, the government are doing little if anything to encourage the democratic involvement of the 18-24 age bracket.
“My experience with 45ForThe45th has been really eye-opening because it has demonstrated that young people really do care about our political system and are willing to spend their time to try and make a difference.”
The organisation produced a Legacy Report on their findings, siting education, social media and candidate accessibility as potential means of engaging younger and first-time voters.
Beth herself highlighted televised debates as an opportunity to actively engage with the political system, saying that seeing party leaders, rather than just reading about them, “provides an opportunity for politicians to reach out to the blank-slates, the first-time voters with no previous political ideology. These are the individuals who need aiding in becoming the democratically engaged citizens that can help in avoiding an apathetic future for our nation.
“One only has to look to our transatlantic neighbours to see the impact and success of leadership debates in engaging potential voters, with over 80 million individuals tuning into each of the three US Presidential debates.” At this point, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have refused to participate in such debates.
By not engaging younger voters, parties are missing out on an as-of-yet non-partisan voting class. Whether political parties will capitalise on this shift in young people towards more pronounced political engagement is uncertain, but it is clear that the current political landscape could be set to change if they do.
We spoke to UEA students to see if they thought the current government and political parties are doing enough to engage youth voters.
You can register to vote in the 2017 General Election by visiting the gov.uk website, or clicking here.