Progressive Futures

How can we better engage younger voters?

22 August 2016

While Brexit demonstrates the risk of allowing young people to be disengaged from politics, it simultaneously presents a window of opportunity

Georgia Gould

Writing this article in the wake of a referendum which has shaken the foundations of British politics offers a helpful place to start when thinking about the place of young voters. The early analysis from polling on the day suggests that around 75 per cent of the 18 to 24 year olds who voted supported remain but also indicate lower turnout from young voters. The figures that have emerged are not definitive but point to a continuing stark generational difference in voter turnout in line with recent UK elections.

The EU referendum brought to life a number of themes that provide wider insight:

  • Generation Y tend to have a more cosmopolitan outlook than older generations. Many are engaging in global online communities around YouTube stars, music, campaigns or a multitude of other niche interests. As the UK’s most diverse generation many young people themselves hold complex, multilayered identities. A group of young men of Somali heritage told me they felt Muslim, Camden, British, Somali and European – these identities not cancelling each other out but shifting in different circumstances. This diversity can give young people a broader sense of their own identity. Young people were less likely to see immigration as the most important issue in relation to EU membership and far more likely to see the loss of the right to work as a risk of leaving the EU (77 per cent of young voters v 49 per cent of over 65s according to polling for British Future). This is by no means a universal picture and there are splits on socioeconomic status and geography, but the tendency is to a more outward-looking focus which translated into support for the EU. This support can be characterised more by a sense of what the EU represents in terms of a globally connected UK rather than deep affection for the EU itself. The EU referendum therefore brought the different parts of Labour’s electoral coalition into direct conflict with each other.​
  • Young people’s support was however lukewarm, and there was low engagement in the debate. Young voters continue to be turned off by traditional politics and political debate. They are cocooned off from political institutions and the majority are not engaging with mainstream news or debate.​
  • Young voices and youth issues were largely missing from the central campaign narratives. This was not just an issue for engaging young people but the campaign missed a huge opportunity to engage older voters in a dialogue about their children and grandchildren’s future. This highlights the now familiar cycle of youth turnout where the young are less likely to engage and find their issues are left out of the discourse, compounding their disengagement.

Underlying this disengagement are some deeper trends.

The importance of individuality

Young voters are increasingly individualistic in the way they interact with politics. Many young people tell me, ‘I am not my class, my religion or my faith – I am just me’. This desire to have their individuality recognised is fundamental to how many young people approach institutions. It underlies much of the reluctance to engage in political or community groups they see as prescriptive or imposing a ‘party line’. Young people prefer individual acts of expression to formalised involvement, whether this is spoken word poetry, community activism or social entrepreneurship. They seek to make a direct and personal impact. This relates to a more individualistic mindset when it comes to policy choices and a strong emphasis on personal responsibility. The nature of that individualism can be a progressive force or a competitive one and a lot depends on the economic circumstances young people face in determining which wins out.

Declining social mobility

There are significant gaps in engagement between young people based on their socioeconomic background. Graduates are far more likely to be civically engaged, hold higher levels of trust and enjoy larger social networks. Technological progress hollows out the labour market with more jobs at the top (with tightening access for young people from professional families) and less in the middle and more poorly paid options. Many young people face substantial challenges including sustained levels of low pay and a higher likelihood than other groups to be in insecure and part-time work. The promise of the internet has been greater equity but for many it has compounded inequalities with greater opportunities available to those with access to capital and stability.

In response there needs to be serious attention paid to how we engage young voters and especially disadvantaged young people. This is particularly important for the centre left as this is a generation that is broadly in tune with their worldview. In many ways the future of the Labour party depends on the party’s ability to mobilise and engage these voters. Brexit offers a window of opportunity as a moment where young people have watched a vote powerfully impact the status quo and where the result has provoked a great deal of anger and concern for many.

There are a few things to consider when seeking to address this:

A better experience of politics

Young people are very experience driven both in terms of how they spend their money and time. Research on volunteering shows that learning and developing skills are key reasons they engage. The National Citizen Service has managed to engage significant numbers of 15-17-year-olds in social action through offering a unique experience and other volunteering programmes such as City Year for 17-24-year-olds have been highly successful. The experience of politics for many can be poor and there is little thought put into how to develop and nurture political activism and invest in young leaders. They also need safe spaces for political dialogue that allow for vulnerability, humanity and nuance.

Bridging institutions that can be a gateway into politics for young people

Too much of the youth engagement efforts have a core message of ‘engagement’, whereas many young people are looking for something to engage in and for. There needs to be some clear issue or value-based campaigns providing a gateway into politics and new spaces where generations can enter into constructive dialogue together. The EveryDaySexism campaign and campaigns such as CitySafe led by Citizens UK are examples of where these approaches have worked in engaging young voters.

Investment in relationship building

For the hardest-to-reach young people there has to be real investment in relationship-based community organising. This is the hard, community-based work of turning up to where young people are, listening, and supporting them to shape their own campaigns. This can be painstakingly slow with those who have least trust and it requires creativity and perseverance. A recent example from a ‘public collaboration lab’ Camden council are running with Central Saint Martins (CSM) saw a group of CSM students tasked with redesigning youth centres in some of our most deprived areas. They at first struggled to engage with some of the hard-to-reach young people who use our services. They tried food, meetings, one-to-one discussions and were met with silence and resistance. Eventually they took a decision to start dynamically changing the young people’s space – moving the pool table, adding new features. The young people responded, writing their feedback, questioning the changes and by the end of the process that silent group had come to present their ideas to the council. Other young people are using spoken word poetry, music and art to reach their peers.

Sharing power

The most successful youth movements give young people a sense of belonging and ownership. This has implications for the design of public services but also the process of politics. In my view this calls for elements of direct democracy such as civic jury days which provide young citizens the chance to understand, explore and make decisions on a political issue in an intergenerational setting. Young people may have hada stronger sense of belonging to the EU if the European Social Funds earmarked for young people had been spent through a process of participatory budget setting which included the disadvantaged young people it sought to serve. Political parties and campaigns need to give thought to how they provide opportunities for young supporters to express their individuality and autonomy within a wider movement. Participation does not stop with politics and there is an important agenda around championing participation in workplaces through mutual ownership, cooperative principles and employee involvement in governance.

A policy agenda that speaks to the issues young people care about

Young people often sit outside traditional left-right framework and their views can be hard to reconcile as they are pragmatic and solutions orientated. There is a distributional imperative to spend more on support for young people and especially disadvantaged young people who have seen the share of national and local spending they receive decrease. A political agenda focused on their aspirations is a strong place to start – jobs, support for entrepreneurship and self-employment, and career progression.

The referendum showed that progressive political projects pay the price for allowing young people to stay disengaged from politics. Last minute ‘catch up’ attempts to re-engage will not work on an audience that has tuned out. There now has to be a long-term effort to engage with the worldview of this generation.

Photo credit: DisobeyArt / Shutterstock.com