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15 October 2015

Politicians who rely on the youth vote are on the road to defeat

A combination of apathy and the British electoral system makes it a losers' charter, according to a new report. 

By Tim Wigmore

“If you give 25 million people a new toy, the odds are pretty good that a lot of them will try it at least once.” So says Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. Thompson is obsessed with the power of the “youth vote” to help George McGovern against Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. McGovern won just one state – Massachusetts – and the District of Columbia,  and lost the popular vote by 23 per cent.

This year’s general election showed that banking on the youth vote is equally disastrous in the United Kingdom. In the weeks before polling day, many Labour supporters imagined that young people could kick out the Tories (and Nick Clegg for good measure), especially after Russell Brand’s encounter with Ed Miliband. The National Union of Students (NUS) even predicted students could affect the outcome of the general election in around 200 constituencies

It did not happen. After all the bluster, the student vote swung just five seats, according to a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute. The remarkable thing is not how much students matter but how little.

Jeremy Corbyn is committed to improving voter registration, and turnout, among students. It is an honourable aim, but is unlikely to help Labour nearly as much as he supposes. Students are more Labour-inclined than the population as a whole, but much less so than many imagine: a strong student vote helped Nicky Morgan increase her majority in Loughborough. Far from being obsessed with tuition fees, priorities for students just aren’t that different from the rest of the electorate.  

There is more bad news for Labour’s strategy of harnessing the youth vote. Despite what the thousands who attended rallies for Corbyn might suggest, the young today are not merely much less politicised than older people, but much less politically engaged than the youth in previous generations, as Maria Grasso has highlighted. What’s worse for the left is that the children of Thatcher and Blair are more right-wing than the children of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan. While today’s young are socially liberal, they lean to the right of their parents in their attitudes to the economy and welfare state.

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Far from becoming more important to politics, young people are becoming even easier to ignore. This year, over 65s were 35 per cent more likely to vote than those under 25. And the grey vote is only going to become more critical: the percentage of the UK population who are over-65 will rise by a third in the next two years while the proportion of young people decreases. This year the Tories thrashed Labour by 24 points among OAPs. It is dramatically closing that gap – not getting more young people to the ballot box – that Labour needs to prioritise to improve its disastrous result in May.

While pensioners’ perks – the triple-lock, free TV licenses and the winter fuel allowance – remain austerity-proof, politicians of all stripes in need of extra cash will realise there’s no one easier to ask than the young. In 1990, the Conservatives introduced maintenance loans; in 1998 Labour introduced tuition fees; in 2006 Labour broke a manifesto promise to treble fees; in 2010 fees were trebled again, despite the Liberal Democrats pledging to abolish fees. Now students are being squeezed once again: maintenance grants are being converted to loans, while the threshold for repaying tuition fees is being frozen for five years (meaning it is being decreased by 12 per cent less in real terms).

History tells us that any anger today’s students feel about these hikes won’t last long. Labour should beware: if the party builds its electoral strategy on the backs of the young, it will be doomed to a catastrophic result to match that of George McGovern 43 years ago.

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