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How young people can hurt the coalition

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

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

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.