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‘A riveting referendum, or charismatic Corbyn?’

Out of the two, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, which did more to increase youth participation?

Luke Stewart, War Studies and History undergraduate student at King’s College London, Conservative party member


Over the last four years, the United Kingdom has had four major political events. In 2014 there was a referendum on Scottish independence, in 2015 a General Election returning the first Conservative Majority since John Major, in 2016 the EU referendum, and this year a general election which saw the second Hung Parliament in a decade. The EU referendum and the 2017 election lead to a revival in political interest. They hold the two largest voter turnouts since the General Election of 1997, which had a 71% turnout: the referendum and the 2017 election had a turnout of 72% and 69% turnout respectively.

The reason these two events had larger turnouts than the norm, could be down to the fact that young people were targeted specifically: 18-24 year olds, the most politically inactivate and unaware age group by average (only around 40% of this age group voted in each of the previous elections, 2001-2015, according to The Metro), were addressed through different techniques and different messages in order to persuade them to go out and vote at both these important events. However, in a letter I received recently from my own MP in response to a concern about an attempt to lower the voting age to 16, she said there was no Government position to lower the voting age because:

‘Electoral participation is significantly lower among 18-24 year-olds compared with older people and there are various factors to this.’

In that case, what was it about the EU referendum and the 2017 General Election that caused the electoral participation of this age group to increase? And what event contributed more to this increase?


Brexit/the EU referendum

The June the 23rd 2017 EU referendum holds the record of the second highest turnout of any political vote behind the 1992 General Election (which had an astonishing 78% turnout). Initial statistics released just after the referendum had turnout among 18-24 year olds at 36% (2). These were later revealed as incorrect as new data compiled by ‘Opinium’ and then analysed by Prof Michael Bruter and Dr Sarah Harrison at the London School of Political Science and Economics, revealed that the true turnout among this age group was in fact 64%2. This is significant: up almost 20% on the turnout of 18-24 year olds at the 2015 General Election, and the same youth turnout as at the 1992 Election. What was it about this referendum that caused such a jump in participation between May 2015 and June 2016?


The significance of the referendum

Many a newspaper and politician did not restrain themselves in emphasising the EU referendum as the most important decision in decades (ironically, the last time the UK held a vote on this large a scale was with the 1975 referendum, where the UK voted to remain within the European Economic Community). A writer for The Huffington Post said that it had ‘never been more important to make sure you’re registered to vote’, and that you had to ‘look up the facts and make up your mind but this is so essential to our future as a great nation’, while The Daily Mirror reported David Cameron saying ‘this is bigger than any one politician – which is why I urge everyone to go out and register so they can have their say’. This emphasis on the significance of the vote must have played a role in the increase in youth turnout. We were encouraged by journalists to do some research into the arguments on trade, immigration, sovereignty, rights, the border with Ireland, etc. and this increased interest and engagement. I saw this first hand at my school – a normally politically unaware friend of mine said that she had spent lots of time researching before deciding to vote Remain.


A sense of familiarity: the want to Remain in the EU

Now, this could be seen more as a reason why some people in the referendum voted Remain, but I think it also impacted turnout of the young. Having joined the EEC in 1972, long before today's 16-24 year old were born, young people must have looked at the leave side with apprehension as it advocated a change of direction away from what was known and familiar. Controls on immigration, exit of the customs union etc. were all daunting changes which young people were keen to resist. As a consequence, in the referendum, 73% of 18-24 years-olds who voted, voted remain the highest percentage of any age group. This passionate desire to remain in the EU was evident the next morning, as many wrote in to The Guardian with fury, claiming that their ‘futures have been governed by the votes of narrow-minded older generations who now will sit back and see our bright futures dimmed’, and that their ‘future was left in the hands of people who I’ve never met’. 16 and 17 year olds also wrote in with anger, professing that now, they would ‘not have the benefits my parents and their generation have had’, and that they believed that ‘the fact that people who are going to be gone in the next 10 years were allowed to vote on something that my peers and I have to live with for the rest of our lives is completely and utterly unacceptable’. An online survey conducted by the The Student Room stated that had 16 and 17 year olds had had the vote, 82% would have voted Remain, and thus maintained the status quo, although when this same age group was given the vote in the Scottish Independence referendum (having the largest turnout by age at 75%), a Lord Ashcroft poll by The Guardian said that 71% of that age group voted for independence, so just because you’re younger doesn’t mean you will always vote for what is familiar.

Overall, the EU referendum managed to get a 20% participation jump from the normally most inactive age range because of the importance, respectively significance, of the vote itself, but more importantly, there was a passion to vote for a certain result that pushed the young out to the ballot box, whether or not they had done their research. 



Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 General Election

The Labour leader certainly managed to galvanise young people at the ballot box last June and not for the first time having already won two leadership elections by a comfortable margin. With Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the 2017 General Election saw a turnout of 69%, but more crucially, the turnout of 18-24 year-olds was at 64%, the highest for a General Election since 1992. So, what was it about Corbyn that infused young people to go and vote?


His personality and his differences among other politicians

Jeremy Corbyn's no ordinary politician: he has never had  Cabinet experience, he has rebelled against the party line numerous times and has been described as having a ‘career of protest’. These actions may portray him as someone with a lack of experience, alongside a lack of obedience to and respect for his party. This was clearly illustrated by the amount of media interventions that came from high profile Labour politicians in 2015 when the idea of Corbyn being elected as Labour leader began to look like more of a reality. For example, Gordon Brown said ‘Labour must be credible and electable in order to win back power and realise its high ideals’, Tony Blair commented ‘the Labour party is in the worst danger in its 100-year history and faces possible annihilation if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership’ and David Miliband stated ‘Electing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader would be a backward move that risks creating a one-governing-party state dominated by the Conservatives’ where only a few  of a group of high-profile Labour members who felt it right to warn that Labour were to win the leadership back in 2015. For many other people though, these very same qualities made Corbyn a man of principles, and someone who cared about others to the extent that he was prepared to defy the party. Thus, on the 8th June 2017, young people went out to the ballot box and voted Labour, seeing someone new, someone principled, someone different who they wanted in Downing Street – a man who might stick to his promises.


THOSE promises: the pledges to abolish tuition fees and scrap student debt (although there is still debate on that second one)

In any article about Jeremy Corbyn and young people this will inevitably be discussed. Firstly, tuition fees. Pledges to block fees worked for Nick Clegg in 2010 and seemed to work again for Corbyn. Labour promised to abolish the £9,000 a year tuition fees for university education, while also pledging to bring back the maintenance grants that were abolished by Chancellor George Osborne only last year. This possibility of a debt free future seems to have been the main factor which got young people behind Labour. Personally, I know that my best friend voted labour due to fees despite siding far more with the conservatives and liberal democrats on other issues. Corbyn also alluded to scrapping student debt making the offer even more enticing. While I agree Corbyn made no promises on the issue his MP’s certainly pushed the idea. Shadow Health Minister Imran Hussain was caught on video promising that ‘every existing student will have their debts wiped’, while Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West released a statement on Twitter that ‘Labour could write off historic student debts’. Whether such claims ever had any truth to them is up for debate but they did have a clear influence on young people who had recently left university facing enormous debt.


Conclusion – which had a greater impact?

Overall, I feel that Jeremy Corbyn had a greater impact on the increase in electoral participation than the referendum although both played a role.  The EU referendum increased turnout to 64% as media outlets and politicians drove home the message of the importance of the referendum with young people in particular viewing it as important to defend their way of life. However, while the 2017 election had a similar level of turnout amongst 18-24 year olds this time the turnout was based upon genuine enthusiasm. Young people voted for Corbyn as leader in 2015, re-elected him in the following year and helped him obtain 30 new MP’s in 2017. I’m convinced that if the Conservative Party don’t find a way to appeal to young people by 2022, Corbyn will pull the majority of them in again come the next election a fate I and other young conservatives must fight hard to avoid.


Image: © Max Pixel