Helen Haste is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath.
The media are predicting a ‘youthquake’ in the coming election. This may be hyperbole (or hope) but there are signs that young people are taking it seriously. The largest proportion of recent registrations to vote have come from young people – though one in three have still not registered. What does this mean?
Youth participation in national elections fluctuates but always seems to make news - whether because of ‘apathy’ or the opposite. The Obama election in 2008 was seen as beacon of positive youth commitment – and a triumph for social media use – but other elections in the world did not always match up. Do people worry that a whole generation will never vote, or do we assume that they will grow into their civic duty in due course? Is lack of electoral interest in young people an indictment of youth’s irresponsibility, or of the system that fails to inspire the public in general?
We do know some things about youth civic participation. In particular, we know that party affiliation is not a strong factor. Several international studies show that ‘joining a political party’ comes last or very far down the list of important characteristics of being a ‘good citizen’. Young people become actively involved in civic issues usually for one of two reasons. One, they become attached to a group primarily for social reasons, but become drawn into the issues or cause through their friends. Two, they become morally engaged on a single issue. Because they come to care about the issue, they feel a strong motivation to support action, or to take action themselves. This may be confined to that one issue, or it may widen interest and awareness as the context of the issue, and policies or structures underlying it, become apparent. So a specific event, or example, may eventually lead to wider commitment to a broader social movement.
However this may still not be about party affiliation. Many recent issues that have fired young people are not exclusively tied to one party – though political parties may try to capitalise on hot current issues. The environment, climate change, feminism, gender and ethnic politics, all seem to have a broadly ‘liberal’ (in the US sense) perspective, but this is in part because there are some vociferous ‘conservative’ (with a small ‘c’) counter narratives. There are plenty of at least centre right environmentalists and people concerned about gender and racial equality – even if their ‘solutions’ might differ a little from the Left. I am fascinated by the history of the very rapid progress of the environment movement. Forty years ago ‘eco-warriors’ were definitely on the political fringe. Yet remarkably soon primary school children were engaged with saving the rainforest animals, and urging their parents to buy eco food. The environment is mainstream, recycling is morally and legally mandatory, and – with a little help in the UK from national treasure Sir David Attenborough – there is rapidly mounting pressure to take climate change more seriously.
So what will young people latch on to on December 12, and how will it affect the parties? We know that, first, young people are more likely to vote Labour than Conservative, and to be Remainers rather than Brexiteers. Recent polls show that fewer than 25% of under-35s will vote Conservative, compared to around 60% of their grandparents. Around three quarters of young people voted to Remain in 2016. (I sometimes wonder what might have happened if 250,000 of them had not been corralled at Glastonbury on the voting day…).
If Brexit – as seems to be the case – is the dominant ‘motivating single issue’ of the election, how might young people respond? First, will they choose to support whichever local party candidate endorses their view on Brexit? Or will they specifically vote against the local candidate whose party opposes their view? The first option would be voting consistent with one’s beliefs. The second is tactical – it might involve voting for a party not wholly aligned with one’s core beliefs. Do we expect young people to vote tactically? In our ‘first past the post’ system, tactical voting makes sense (I have only twice in my life voted for the Party closest to my beliefs, because in the constituencies in which I have lived, it would be a wasted vote; so I vote to oppose the Party I do not wish to see in power).
Many young people may be inclined to vote Green, but in almost all constituencies this would be a ‘wasted’ vote and have no ‘Brexit impact’ - either way. For Remainers, in constituencies with a strong Lib Dem candidate, the choice is clear- cut. Otherwise it is not. By no means all Tory candidates are Brexiteers. Labour’s position is also ambiguous. It will be interesting to see how young people make sense of this and play it out.
This blog is part of the IPR 'General Election 2019' blog series. Visit the IPR blog to read more.