Youth voter turnout has long been a topic of debate, controversy and worry in British politics. Always below the national average, it has plunged even more than other age-groups’ dovetailing turnout in recent decades, sparking expressions of concern (although comparatively little policy change) from political parties. This seemed to have changed last June, with sites such as Yougov and NME reporting large increases in the youth vote for the 2017 general election, with the figures suggesting the largest rise in youth turnout in British political history.
Yet, more recent evidence from the BES has suggested this not to be the case – the analysis of their data by Prosser et al suggests a negligible rise in turnout for 18-24 year olds, a conclusion that has generated a considerable amount of press coverage and, inevitably, controversy.
even if there wasn’t any huge increase in youth turnout, it shouldn’t change what we do next
Political scientist Peter Kellner has challenged the study’s denial of a youthquake, primarily by pointing out the very small number of 18-24 year olds in the study (just 109 for the 2017 sample), the resulting large confidence intervals (the figures between which we can be 95% certain the true value actually lies), and the fact that less than 50% of those contacted actually replied to the researchers (were those that didn’t reply more likely to have actually voted? We don’t know). An article for the New Statesman by a number of prominent academics in the field also criticises the study on the grounds that a considerable number of the constituencies in the study had no young people in them at all! (The BES has replied to some of their critics here.)
As well as these problems, there’s quite a chunk of evidence to the contrary. The NME exit poll, the Ipsos-Mori data and the Yougov survey all show large youth turnout increases (although they all do have their own problems). There was an unquestionably huge increase in young people registering to vote before the election. On top of this, we all saw how effectively Momentum and the Corbyn campaign tapped into youth culture – political engagement, and the youthquake narrative, is after all about much more than just voting. Crucially, the BES’s own data does show a marked increase in turnout for 25-40 year olds (I’m sure many 20-somethings suddenly no longer classed as ‘young’ are thrilled) and that those young people that did vote voted for Labour in much larger numbers than at the last general election.
Kellner also cautions us not to obsess over percentages: “If more students were on the register last year than in 2015 (including those who converted from one-address voters to two-address voters, to make sure they were able to vote on the day), then it’s possible that the number of students who voted last year was higher than in 2015, even if their turnout percentage rate was the same, or even lower.”
Beyond the statistics though, the debate does, to some extent, miss the point. It is perhaps partly fuelled by a desperate, delirious desire in some quarters for any sign that the Corbyn project is faltering, or at least not becoming as embedded in younger generations as previously thought, mixed in with a good dose of the historical ‘apathetic youth’ narrative. Youth politics has often been viewed through the distorted assumption that youth engagement means young people fitting into existing formal institutions, rather than challenging and remoulding them ready for a new generation. By preoccupying ourselves with formal turnout numbers, we risk falling into this trap. For those of us that want to see the Corbyn project realised, our energy does not need to be on the past, but the future, not solely on formal political institutions but wider societal change. Ultimately, even if there wasn’t any huge increase in youth turnout, it shouldn’t change what we do next: agitate, organise and mobilise, within Parliament and without.
So don’t dismiss the youthquake – there was and is a genuine change happening in British politics, and in youth politics in particular. Even the Conservatives are being forced to accept they can’t continue to neglect youth interests, creating fertile ground for a new energy and boldness in youth activism. But don’t take this change for granted either. It’s not certain or inevitable, but it is possible. Let’s organise and agitate, within formal institutions but beyond them too, to develop it into real, tangible change for young people.
Featured image CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikipedia
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