As result after shock result came in on election night, commentators grappled for an explanation. One thing they landed on was the youth vote. Contrary to political wisdom – and to the horror of right-wingers – those tricksy young people appeared to have actually gone out and voted.
In the bleary early hours of election morning, an unverified figure began flying around: 72 per cent youth turnout. Based on no data whatsoever, the percentage nevertheless captured the early analysis of the election.
It was, as the Guardian describes, a “youthquake”. Many new Labour MPs thanked the young people in their constituencies during their victory speeches. On the flipside, Nick Clegg was particularly ashen-faced, having suffered at the hands of young people – probably students – in his Sheffield Hallam constituency.
Marvelling at this phenomenon didn’t last long though. The Times ran a piece preposterously suggesting that we pander too much to young people in British politics, headlined: “Let’s stop treating the young as political sages.” And because the 72 per cent figure turned out to be bogus, the narrative changed to suggest that the youth factor had been overblown.
But it looks like the surge in young voters is real after all. According to analysis by Ipsos MORI of how people voted, the election saw the highest youth turnout in 25 years. It is estimated that 64 per cent of registered voters in both the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups turned out.
— Ben Page, Ipsos MORI (@benatipsosmori) June 20, 2017
Contrary to perceptions of low youth turnout in the EU referendum, this is very similar to the estimate of how many young people turned out last year. It is, however, much higher than youth turnout at the last election, which was 43 per cent. Compared with 2015, turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds rose by 21 points.
“Age is important in a way it never has been before,” the psephologist John Curtice declared after analysing the election results. Indeed, this election saw the biggest gap between ages (in terms of their party preference) since Ipsos MORI’s records began in 1979. Young voters overwhelmingly preferred Labour, with 62 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s party. All the swing to Labour – the “surge” we keep hearing about – was among people under 44, and highest of all among millennials (there was a 13 per cent swing from Tory to Labour among 25 to 34-year-olds).
In contrast, over-55s swung to the Tories, and 61 per cent of voters aged 65 and over voted Conservative. But there was a small drop in turnout among old people (three points down among over-65s from 2015).
Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute, says the youth vote was a “big factor” in Corbyn’s success. “Age was a very important element of the result,” he says. “The incredible gradient of partisan support between young and old – where the young are over twice as likely to support Labour as the old, and vice versa for the Conservatives, where the old are over twice as likely to support Conservatives than the young – that [is an] almost perfect mirror image.”
So the received wisdom that young people don’t vote is yet another Westminster rule that this election has broken. But Duffy suggests we, “shouldn’t have been as surprised at that as we have been”, because turnout was so similar to that of the EU referendum. He suggests that, rather than election fatigue, young people are getting used to turning out due to the number of votes there have been recently.
“All of the academic work does show that voting is partly habitual,” he points out. “That once you start voting, you tend to continue voting. We have had three big political events in two years, with the referendum reaching people who don’t normally vote. So the chances of that continuing are increased.”
So this Labour-friendly resource hasn’t yet been saturated, and is likely to grow in upcoming elections. Duffy warns that there are also contextual factors at play – the leaders’ appeal, the campaign, the political landscape – that you can’t predict about future votes. But he does believe we could be seeing a change in voting patterns, after over two decades of low youth turnout.
“Academic study after academic study shows there is a relationship between voting at a previous election and voting at the next election,” he says. “So we have in some ways habituated young people into voting by having a series of political events.”
It could just take one more election to change not just voting patterns but the party of government.