The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

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Young people don't vote. Or do they?

In the run up to the election there was (as often) a lot of chatter about the youth vote mattering, and the polling companies were not sure whether to weight their party preference based on vote intention or previous vote.

So young people were problematic to predict. The turnout figures we are seeing suggest that the turnout is up among the younger voters, and throughout the night we saw turnout up in cities where there was a university. It is important to treat these figures with caution at this point before more robust analysis has been done.

If it is the case that youth turnout is up, why is that? To me the concept of the standby citizen comes to mind, coined by researchers at the YES centre at Örebro University in Sweden. Their argument is that young people are engaged and interested in politics, but not engaging at the moment, but ready to do so when the conditions are right. They’re on stand by to be active. During the time of youth a lot of things happen, and a lot of opinions are formed. A lot more things happen in your life that seem to have more impact than politics on your life. So who can really blame them for being on stand by?

There are two things that I would argue that have led to the potential increase in the youth vote, primarily in support of Labour.

1. It was a critical time: Young people voted against Brexit.
There was a big generational divide in the Brexit vote, and young people were on the losing end of it. This became the critical point that mattered to young people. The Conservatives went for hard Brexit and farmed the election as another Brexit referendum, so they got another chance to have their voices heard. Labour took a softer stance on Brexit, and it seems quite clear that a substantial part of the Labour surge comes from young voters turning up and voting Labour.

2. They were actively mobilized by Labour: Corbyn and Labour engaged with young voters.
Not only did he do interviews in NME and appeared on the One Show, but the manifesto was different and treated young people differently. Young people were not passive subjects of certain policies, they were active beneficiaries in the anti-austerity message. Young people have been the hardest hit by the austerity policies and Labour took this seriously and proposed scrap tuition fees and zero hours contracts- issues of particular importance for young people.

So it seems like young people are not inherently neither apathetic nor alienated, but they stand by on the sidelines until it’s relevant and critical for them to vote. It’s down to whether the parties actively mobilise them and have policies that matter to them. It’s really a basic rational choice voter model, it’s not more complicated than that.

By Emily Rainsford

published on: 12 June 2017