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Youth and experience. Turnout among 18-24 year olds and past non-voters

May 30th, 2017

 

In the summer of 1969, I was not yet two years old.  The world watched in awe as Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  My parents sat me in front of the television set so that I could say in years to come that I had seen it.  Of course, I don’t remember it at all.

I try to keep this piece of family nostalgia in mind when thinking about how the world looks to younger voters.  The youngest voters in this election were two years old when the September 11 attacks took place.  The oldest voters in the 18-24 year old band were not yet five years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.  They will remember nothing of these events.  The miners’ strike and the Brighton bombing will be as remote history for them as rationing, the death of Stalin and the Suez crisis are for me.  The world looks very different to them as a result.

It is only too easy for older voters to forget this.  Many of them are baffled how anyone could consider voting for someone so morally compromised by his past dealings with terrorists.  Many younger voters are baffled in turn why anyone could think this particularly relevant in 2017.  They seem enthused by the policies that Labour are putting forward, and branding those policies as reheated seventies socialism also cuts no ice with them for the same reason.

Labour have been rising in the polls.  The extent of that rise depends on which pollster’s methods you prefer.  Those largely relying on self-recorded certainty to vote, such as YouGov and Survation, are finding that the Conservatives’ lead has closed to about 6%.  Those who weight this by past experience of voting practices in different groups, such as ICM and ComRes, are finding a Conservative lead in double digits.

Which is right?  The answer to that is not obvious.  It’s often said that the four most expensive words in the English language are “this time it’s different” and anyone betting on the young and previous non-voters turning out in large numbers this time is betting that something different is going to happen this time around.  Yet with the SNP’s performance in the 2015 general election, the EU referendum result and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, we’ve seen three results that relied on different behaviours in the last two years.  Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have been quite explicit about their targeting of previous non-voters. Might we therefore see a fourth?

Young voters haven’t always abstained in high numbers.  In 2015 turnout was something like 44% among 18-24 year olds, but it was north of 50% in 2010.  60% of registered voters in this age group voted in the EU referendum.  By definition, this is a group whose voting practices have not yet been set in stone.  They may have the capacity to surprise with their civic-mindedness, especially if they have been enthused by Labour’s offering. 

There are three indications that something more like normal service will continue on 8 June so far as the youngest section of the electorate and previous non-voters are concerned.  First, this enthusiasm has sprung up in the last month.  It is quite possible that part of Labour’s apparent rise in the polls is simply that Labour supporters are more willing to get involved in conversations about polling than previously, given that Labour’s campaign has been more sprightly than just about anyone expected at the outset.

Secondly, any real increase in enthusiasm seems not to be deep-seated, given it was not present a month ago.  It is reasonable to suspect that a relatively recent passion may not motivate non-voters in particular out of their past practices.

Thirdly, the levels of self-reported certainty to vote are implausible.  The recent Survation poll showing Labour on 37% found that 82% of 18-24 year olds said they were intending to vote.  Indeed, Survation found 10 out of 10 certainty to vote at 81% across the whole population.  Either would be unprecedented in the UK.  We can reasonably be politely sceptical about both of these figures, which may reflect either a tendency for those replying to opinion polls to be  unusually interested in politics or a human nature to overstate one’s sense of responsibility.  Some fairly hefty downweighting of both seems required.

We may see some improvement in voter turnout with these groups – probably counterbalanced to a considerable degree by voters unimpressed by any of the parties or their prospectuses.  The overall result, however, is likely to be closer to the picture presented by ComRes and ICM to that presented by YouGov and Survation.  So at present it seems likely that the Conservatives remain on course for a very big victory.

Alastair Meeks