Financial Times - At last, an election in which the young found their voice

Financial Times - At last, an election in which the young found their voice

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June 10, 2017. Helen Lewis.

Labour ran an upbeat campaign, while the Tories relied on a message of fear.

For as long as I’ve been covering British politics, all discussion has been shaped by one cast-iron rule: old people reliably turn out on polling day and young people don’t.

However, both the EU referendum and this week’s general election suggest a different principle applies. If young people feel there’s something worth turning out for, then they will. In last year’s referendum, twice as many 18-24-year-olds voted as initially thought — 64 per cent. In the 2005 general election, the nadir, youth turnout was just 38 per cent.

Reliable breakdowns by age will not be available for several days, but there is widespread agreement that youth turnout is up. Indeed, it’s the only way to make sense of results in student-heavy constituencies such as Bristol West, where the Labour incumbent Thangam Debbonaire ended the night with a majority of 37,336. Yes, you read that right. Her lead over the second-placed Conservative is nearly 400 less than the total number of people who voted for Theresa May in Maidenhead.

This shift in behaviour matters for two reasons — first, because younger voters are more socially liberal than their parents and grandparents, and far more likely to believe that Britain should be “open” rather than “closed”. They are also far more likely to be graduates than older generations, where perhaps only one in 10 people attended university. That, in turn, means they are far more likely to vote Labour (or for another progressive party). Three-quarters of them chose Remain over Leave.

Second, a larger and more vocal group of young voters will inevitably lead politicians to reconsider their pledges. Elections over the past two decades have been driven by the need to protect the incomes and benefits of the old. When New Labour took office, pensioner poverty was at 29 per cent. Now, pensioners are less likely to live in poverty than any other group. Even as working-age benefits were frozen in the name of post-crash “austerity”, pensioners’ incomes were protected by the triple lock.

At the same time, the issues which preoccupy young people have struggled to get airtime. The Conservatives have long prided themselves on being the party of homeowners, but even relatively affluent under-35s in big cities feel the prospect of buying a house is distant. Young professionals chafe at the idea that they could somehow save tens of thousands of pounds for a deposit if only they gave up a few lattes and brunches. And while they wait to buy, most live in the private rented sector, where the balance of power is heavily tilted towards landlords.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour gambled that is was worth offering young people the kind of sweeties usually given to the old. The pledge to scrap tuition fees was a big, and effective, electoral bung. It was rewarded with victory in seats with large or growing student populations such as Sheffield Hallam and Canterbury. The fee pledge, alongside other sweeteners such as free school meals, meant that the party was able to create a coalition across the age groups who all felt they would be financial winners under Labour.

Labour also used social media to great effect. More than a million people like Mr Corbyn’s Facebook page, giving it a similar reach to a national newspaper. The 68-year-old is also a dab hand at the more edgy image-sharing app Snapchat, posting straight-to-camera video endorsements by youth-friendly celebrities. His online presence went a long way to neutralising the relentlessly negative coverage of the rightwing press, and future leftwing candidates will study it.

There is one final legacy of the greater youth turnout. Mr Corbyn, whatever his flaws, ran an upbeat, positive campaign — while the Tories relied almost exclusively on fear messaging. As with Barack Obama in 2008, the Labour leader created a feelgood factor among his young supporters. Their votes were also votes to make the tone of British politics less pinched and miserable. We should thank them for that.

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