How young people can hurt the coalition

Under 25s are a much greater electoral force than they realise.

What has the coalition got against young people? This is the question haunting the blogosphere after David Cameron announced his intention to scrap housing benefit to under-25s. With youth unemployment already over one million, EMA scrapped, tuition fees tripled, Connexions services shut and the Future Jobs Fund closed, this prime minister is starting to develop something of a reputation.

But the next question is this: What damage could young people do back? I've been looking at the data, and three interesting findings emerge from the numbers.

First, since the 1970s, winning parties have always won at least a third of the youth vote in general elections (scroll down to the pink chart here). People might assume that the Conservatives were different, but a difficult fact for lefties is that 42 per cent of young people aged 18-24 supported Margaret Thatcher when she first came to power.

The interesting exception is the present Conservative party. When David Cameron was elected in 2010, he won just 30 per cent of the youth vote. Youth representation in government manifested itself that year through the Liberal Democrats, the party with the lowest average age of supporter.

But now that youth support for the LibDems is hemorrhaging, an opportunity is opening up for Labour. An illuminating ICM poll for the Guardian shows that in the month before the general election, some 44 per cent of young people aged 18-24 planned to vote Lib Dem. A similar poll taken two years on showed that figure had dropped to seven per cent. 

Idealistic about change, the Liberal Democrats’ decisions in office will burn deep, like getting dumped by your first love. It remains to be seen whether the party can ever win back that trust. The youth vote at the next election is now open, but it must be earned.

Point two. Young people help steer electoral turning points. A significant chunk of young people might have supported Thatcher in 1979, but when they got sick of austerity, they switched in large numbers. When teens and tweenagers flocked to the polls in 1997, some 49 per cent voted for Tony Blair.

And when Labour lost power in 2010, that figure dropped to 30 per cent.

Because the youth vote is now massively untapped, it has great potential for any party that dares to inspire it.

There’s a tendency to assume young people are naturally more inclined to vote for the left, but that is simply not the case. David Cameron might not have won round the bulk of the youth vote, but they were no more likely to vote for Labour. If Ed Miliband wants to capture the hearts of the next generation, he'll have to work harder.

A key opportunity to do that is the shift to individual voter registration. Research from the Electoral Commission shows that young people and private renters make up the two biggest groups of unregistered voters, and the government’s proposals threaten to lock out even more. If Labour does go ahead with its mooted voter registration drive and includes some targetted work for young people and students, there will be strategic as well as moral benefits. After all, if you feel a party cares about your voice being heard, you're more likely to vote for that party.

There are other ways to capture the youth vote that go deeper than slamming the government. Introducing votes to 16s – with some even discussing the possibly of making electoral participation compulsory for first time voters - alongside the possibility of voting through social media would encourage young people to get involved. Migrant communities continue to vote for Labour because the party gave them the vote; young people could do the same.

It's true that appealing to younger age groups is risky because, at present, they are significantly less likely to vote than older voters. In fact the Guardian ICM poll shows that on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being certain to vote, 18-24s score an average of less than 6, compared to over 65s who score 8.6. But as the huge turnouts at youth elections show, this is unlikely to mean they are uninterested in politics. A more likely explanation is that they're disillusioned with parties and politicians.

Of course whoever wins 2015 will have to form a party that speaks to all ages. But at the moment this coalition is failing to do that. No one likes the idea of young people struggling, no matter what age they are. Grandparents are worried about their families. Pensioners are concerned about schools. By speaking more to young people, politicians would be speaking to the nation.

 

David Cameron talks to young people at a careers centre in Hammersmith. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition