Youthquake 2017! Can young voters transform the UK’s political landscape?

11 Oct 2017

On the afternoon of Saturday June 22, 2017, Jeremy Corbyn, the 68-year-old leader of the Labour Party, strode out onto the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival to the sort of deafening screams usually reserved for multimillionaire rock-stars. A few weeks earlier, he’d sat down for an interview with London grime artist JME, after the musician – and his peers – publicly endorsed him on social media with the hashtag #grime4corbyn. This came despite grime’s famously anti-establishment, anti-politics message.

Labour didn’t win the General Election on 8 June but it did perform much better than expected and these examples, along with the steep rise in the number of young people voting, are taken as evidence that young people were responsible for this surge in popularity. For the first time in decades, the narrative goes, young people are a force in politics: the UK has been hit by a ‘youthquake’.

But do the statistics back up this assumption? What actually caused young voters to turn out in greater numbers this summer and can they really transform the political landscape, as some are suggesting?

Drawing on the latest data and new research in politics, government and media psychology, the British Academy discussed ‘Youthquake 2017’ at an event in partnership withThe Conversation this week.

Dr Benjamin Bowman, Research Coordinator, at the University of Bath, Dr Sharon Coen, Senior Lecturer in Media Psychology at the University of Salford, Dr Monica Poletti, ESRC Postdoctoral Research Assistant at QMUL were joined by Professor Paul Whiteley FBA, Professor of Government at the University of Essex, to discuss how young people are reshaping politics. The event was chaired by Laura Hood, Politics Editor and Assistant Editor at The Conversation.

Turnout at the 2017 election was estimated to be up 19% among 18-29-year olds. Presenting new data, Fellow of the British Academy Professor Paul Whiteley revealed how this translated into political allegiance. His research shows a country polarised by age: 63% of 18-29-year-olds voted Labour in 2017, compared to just 23% of the over 65s.

The effects of this age divide were largely seen in how young people view political leaders. 51% of 18-29s rated Jeremy Corbyn as competent, compared to 18% of over 65s. In contrast, 69% of the over-65s rated Theresa May as competent, but just 31% of the youngest age group.

“Both polling data and voting data show the same story, that there was a massive ‘youthquake’”, Professor Whitely concluded.

Other new research looks at where and how young people are engaging in politics today. Dr Monica Poletti, whose research surveys Conservative and Labour party members, explained how the two parties have a similar proportion of younger members, but this translates into much higher overall numbers for the Labour party.

However, a high number of older former members are returning to the Labour fold, perhaps due to the pull of Jeremy Corbyn. This means that the average Labour party member is actually in their mid-50s.

So, are young people in fact looking outside traditional political structures for political information and a community of like-minded activists?

Young people to date have adopted a “retreat and survive” approach to politics, said Dr Benjamin Bowman.  But, he added, “People have said for the past twenty years that young people are apathetic about politics, that they are not engaged… the real youthquake is that is no longer a model that really holds.”

The 2017 youthquake was fed by social media, mobilising young people into politicised online tribes.

“Labour voters were internet users in a way Conservative voters were not”, said Professor Whiteley. 61% of those who that they used the internet for political information ‘a great deal’, voted Labour, compared to 21% of this group who voted Conservative.

 “Labour party members were much more active on Facebook and Twitter than Conservative party members”, added Dr Poletti. “It might not be considered cool to share on social media, especially if you are young person, that you are a Tory.”

Yet while the Conservatives spent more on social media during the general election, it seems not to have had the galvanising effect of Labour posts.

Dr Sharon Coen, Senior Lecturer in Media Psychology at the University of Salford, has analysed the social media strategies of the two parties.

“The way in which social media was used by the Conservatives was pretty much like marketing…where they were failing was engagement. That’s the crucial feature of social media communication; social media [is] about engaging with the audience, getting them on your side and having a dialogue with them. That is something that Labour did very well,” she explained.

“Labour was creative, but they also managed to build a collective identity [on social media]”.

But surely the impact of social media can only go so far. What were the longer-term causes of the youthquake, and what does this signal for the future of our political system?

“The Brexit story is one part of it, liking Jeremy Corbyn is another part of it, but I think the real driver [of the youthquake] is the fact that the interests of young people have been neglected and ignored by successive governments, but particularly acutely since 2010. You can see it in the university fees issue…and I think young people revolted against this” argued Professor Whiteley.

It remains to be seen whether the youthquake’s tremors will continue to be felt in this Parliament, through Brexit, and beyond, but the panel were clear that political leaders overlook the younger voter at their peril.

As Professor Whitely warned: “Ignore the interests of young people long enough, you might just reach a tipping point when they wake up.”

Watch this event on Facebook via The Conversation UK:


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