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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.