Let down and left out: Young voters and the EU referendum

The EU referendum campaigns and mainstream media displayed a staggering indifference to younger voters, writes James Sloam. He highlights how the switch to individual voter registration, the timing of the vote, the exclusion of 16- and 17-year olds and  the media circus of exaggerated claim and counter-claim all left young people unenthused by the campaign and strongly opposed to the final outcome.

Democracy International

Credit: Democracy International CC BY-SA 2.0

Turnout was high – at 72% – in the EU referendum on 23 June. While we digest the results, we might want to consider those who will be most affected by this decision – younger citizens. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, young people have borne the brunt of austerity in public spending – from the trebling of university tuition fees to £9,000 and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, to the large reductions in funding for youth services in local communities.

If the divisions in the final EU vote – 51.9% to 48.1% – in the country were large, the divisions between the sentiments of younger and older voters were huge. According to YouGov on-the-day figures, 75% of 18-24 year olds wished to remain in the EU whilst 61% of over 65s wished to leave. The student vote was even more pronounced with an impressive 82% of full-time students in the Remain camp. So, those who are (mostly) trying to move onto the labour market and the housing ladder very much wanted to remain, as those who are (mostly) retired on fixed incomes voted to leave. However, only 49% of younger voters and 55% of full-time students said that were certain to vote, compared to 69% of over 65s.

On campuses around the country, university lecturers and administrators and student unions tried to bring out the youth vote by holding EU debates and voter registration drives. Our own #Votebecause initiative at Royal Holloway University – to promote youth voter registration and turnout – sought to spread the message through social media and a campus presence. Nevertheless, in efforts to bring out the youth vote, we were swimming against the tide. In the run-up to the EU referendum and in the campaign itself, the Government, the Remain and Leave campaigns, and the mainstream media displayed a staggering indifference to younger voters. Given the decades-long trend towards low electoral turnout amongst young people, this was unsurprising and disturbing in equal measure.

The first problem came two years ago, when the Government introduced the individual voter registration system, which has led to over a million people falling off the electoral register. According to Toby James and Oliver Sidorczuk, ‘the number of attainers, our next generation of voters, fell by 40%’. Voter registration numbers amongst younger voters never quite recovered, and the efforts made by the Government and Electoral Commission to rectify the situation were too little too late.

Second, the timing of the referendum was completely indifferent to the fact that it was to take place in the higher education summer vacation period. This meant that many young people would not be registered in the location where they were going to be on 23 June (those applying for jobs might reasonably have not known where they would be living by the time of the 7 June registration deadline). Others would be abroad on summer holidays or maybe at Glastonbury. Still others had (diligently) registered for Council elections at their university, but not realised that they were not registered at home. This was the reality we found in interviews with students on campus.

Third, the decision not to enfranchise around 1.5 million 16 and 17 year olds – as had taken place in the Scottish referendum – was counterproductive. Although many dispute the need or right of 16 year olds to have to vote, their participation would have encouraged much more political engagement in schools, pupil participation in mock votes and hustings, and discussion of the important and complex issue of EU membership. For the Remain campaign, it would also have strengthened their numbers.

Third, the Remain camp lacked ideology and passion. David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, for example, were well known to harbour soft Eurosceptic views. ‘Be pragmatic!’ could hardly be considered to be a rallying cry for younger voters, who tend to be – in any case – concerned with issues of ‘authenticity’ and ‘conviction’. Although younger voters were very much focussed on economic issues (as opposed to migration for many older voters), the Remain campaign stressed the negatives of leaving rather than the positives of staying. The Green Party perhaps came closest to a positive, youth-oriented approach with its emphasis on the value of staying in the EU to maintain environmental standards and enable international agreements on action against climate change.

Finally, the media circus of exaggerated claim and counter-claim was not helpful. This merely underlined many young people’s existing views that politicians did not tell the truth and could not be trusted. The media must share some of the blame. Some claims were – mostly on the Leave side – not factually correct. For example, the supposed spectre of Turkish membership of the EU in the near future is clearly nonsense. On the complex issue of EU politics, there was a conspicuous lack of ‘expert analysis’ (beyond one journalist interviewing another journalist). Despite the anti-expert sentiment expressed by Michael Gove and others in the Leave camp, polls showed that – beyond ‘friends and family’ – experts were the most trust source of information for the referendum.

Experts were not given enough exposure to more clearly evaluate the pros and cons of British membership of the EU. In this respect the media – particularly the tax-funded BBC – should be criticised for their inability to define the issues more clearly i.e. analysing the different options for Brexit and the consequences of such a decision. The BBC also managed to grossly misrepresent feeling amongst young people in its 18-29 year old question time in Glasgow in late May. A supposedly representative audience was drawn from across the UK, but the Remain and Leave guests were split 50-50. In other words, in aiming to give balance, the BBC presented a distorted view of this pro-Remain generation.

The consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the EU are likely to be felt for generations, but young people were both unenthused by the campaign and strongly opposed to the final outcome. We must hope that this does not further erode their trust in electoral politics.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on the PSA Political Insight blog. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

James Sloam is Reader in Politics at Royal Holloway University of London. He tweets @James_Sloam.

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