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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.