You may not realise, but if we are still in the European Union on the morning of June 24, you’ll have young people to thank for it.
An analysis of YouGov polling data from April by The Times showed, unsurprisingly, that as people get older, they’re more likely to vote Leave. The data reveals that the age at which voters are split down the middle about Europe is 43, whereas by the time that people hit 60, nearly two thirds of them will support leaving the EU. Contrasted against this, if you’re below the age of 25, more than 70 per cent of you are going to vote Remain.
And yet, young people don’t vote. That truism is written into every fibre of British politics, from policy decisions to election results. In the grand scheme of things, young people can be hit with higher tuition fees, denied access to the living wage, find it impossible to find somewhere to live and experience among the highest unemployment rates for a generation, and it doesn’t matter, because they don’t matter.
Because they don’t vote.
And yet, in what must surely rank as an incredible cosmic irony, being thwarted by young people voting is exactly what might happen to the Leave campaign in a few weeks’ time. Because in order for the maths to add up, where the majority of age groups are pro-Brexit yet the polls have the two camps neck and neck, young people must really, really want to stay.
So the solution for Leave should be clear: if they could convince even another five per cent of dithering sub-30 year-olds to vote against Europe, then they’d have it in the bag. Except as a result of the automatic assumption that young people’s opinions don’t matter, neither campaign, and especially not Leave, are making any effort to court them at all.
George Osborne fell prey to this recently when he argued that leaving Europe could lower house prices, reflexively thinking that everyone in the country is a massive fan of prices just where they are. Luckily for him, even the promise of an affordable place to live wasn’t enough to tempt young Remainers across the aisle.
The Brexit campaign is even more guilty.
From the day to day coverage, it seems like the Leave campaign has focused on fears of economic devastation, lack of national sovereignty, increased national security threats, as well as a paranoid fear of immigration that borders on the xenophobic (Don’t get me wrong, there might be positive arguments, but between Boris Johnson drawing comparisons with Hitler, Michael Gove predicting that millions of people will relocate here and warnings that our membership is akin to flushing billions of pounds down the toilet, I must have missed them). The problem is that, as most people could tell you, these arguments simply aren’t very persuasive to young people.
If you were born in the 1950s, then you grew up in the wake of the Second World War, in an almost exclusively white country that didn’t really have security problems. Yes, there were The Troubles. But in terms of sheer scale, more people were killed in November’s Paris attacks than in England during the entirety of the 30 year conflict.
If you were born in 1990, on the other hand, then the World Trade Centre would have been brought down when you were 11 years old. The 7/7 bombings took place a few months before you turned 16. As you were leaving school the Great Recession curb-stomped your aspirations and held your career in a stranglehold when you graduated from university.
While most Brexiteers look at a return to economic stability and freedom from fear of terrorism as some sort of regression to the mean, millennials (as they’re called) were born too late to ever really experience these things. Rather than seeing them as a beautiful idyll to which we can come back if people only wished hard enough, financial instability and wariness of terror are such facts of life for them that promising an alternative seems like fanciful thinking. More obviously however, if Leave is trying to appeal to the most multicultural and diverse generation that this country has ever seen, and a quarter of which aren’t white, arguing that Obama doesn’t like Britain because of his Kenyan heritage is hardly the way to go.
Ultimately, this is a campaign in which it was very possible for Leave to win over the young.
Make genuine arguments about how we can, and should, do it alone. Argue that the country that won the Battle of Britain doesn’t need to be a part of the EU, and when the other side complain about the economic penalties, turn around and say that they’re fear-mongering. Instead of that, we have a public discussion bogged in pretending the main reason people want to leave is because of the cash we supposedly send over there each week, or that we would have a better quality of banana if only we cast off our European shackles.
Which might well be fun to watch, but it’s not like a teenager is going to put a poster of that on their wall, are they?