Young people have turned on Nick Clegg. Photo: Flickr/Jason
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Why young people could be even easier to ignore at the next election

The political generation gap could widen as a new voter registration system could stop students voting.

Swathes of young people are giving up on democracy. They think that all politicians are oblivious to the challenges of the young. Twice in the past ten years, governing parties have broken their election promises to introduce tuition fees, as Labour did in 2004, and then abolish them, as the Liberal Democrats did when they agreed to treble fees in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

In 2010, just 51.8 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted, compared with 74.7 per cent of those aged 65 and older. For politicians, this creates a crude electoral logic to prioritise the interests of the elderly over the young.

The young could be even easier to ignore at the next election. Britain’s ageing population is giving grandparents further electoral clout at the expense of their grandchildren. A technical change in the voter registration process could depress turnout among the young further.

The next election will be the first time that the system of Individual Electoral Registration (IES), whereby voters have to register individually rather than by household, is used. The system was advocated by the Electoral Commission as far back as 2003 and, because it is considered to be a safeguard against fraud, is supported by all three main parties.

But the fear is it will lead to many young people, especially students, not being registered to vote. When Northern Ireland switched to IES in 2002, students were disproportionately affected by the transition. Students can no longer be registered en masse in halls of residence, and, because many move accommodation from year to year, it will stretch Electoral Registration Officers to trace them.

In 2010, an estimated 22 per cent of the student population was not registered to vote. The switch to IES risks making the figure significantly larger next May. “It is plausible that somewhere around half of all students might not be registered, at least in their place of study,” says Nick Hillman, who has co-authored a new report on the electoral power of the student population.

Young people not voting next May will not only reduce their electoral power in the 2015 general election, but for decades after. This is because, as the IPPR’s report on political inequality between generations last year noted, there is a ‘cohort effect’ in voting habits. Turnout among those born in the 1970s and 1980s is lower than older generations and remains comparatively lower as they get older. So not voting in one election makes someone significantly less likely to vote next time. And increasingly young people see no point in voting. In 1992, over 65s were 12 per cent more likely to vote than those under 25. In 2010, the gap was 23 per cent – and it would have been even greater had 18-24-year-olds not been enthused by the Lib Dems’ pledge to abolish tuition fees.

The generation gap could be even larger next May. Caroline Lucas, who is among the MPs most dependent on the student vote, says that she is “deeply concerned” that the introduction of IES “will mean that a lot of students still won’t be thinking about getting registered.” Universities have been lax in following the approach of Sheffield University. It has liaised with Sheffield City Council to give new students the opportunity to be included on the electoral register when they register at university. But as the university year has already begun, the best chance of increasing student registration now rests with city councils, electoral registration offices and universities themselves.

The risk is profound. On 7 May next year, thousands of students will go to polling booths and find that they are disenfranchised. Nothing would send a worse message to the young about how much they are valued.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.