While it is true that younger people have always been generally less interested in party politics than their parents and grandparents, there is certainly a case for arguing that the present cohort of younger people is more politically engaged – in the broadest sense – than their predecessors. They are better educated for a start, and new technologies have engaged many more of them in (widely defined) current affairs. Recent climate strikes and protests show as much, as does the commitment of so many of those born since the UK entered the EU in 1973 to hold on to the huge gains in the quality of our national life that were made as a result.
The rise of social media, far from zombifying young voters, is drawing many of them in, giving them a voice and stimulating debate. This has, indeed, been the experience of the digital revolution over the last decade or so – more abuse and violent language, yes, but also the creation of many sharp conversations for which there was no forum in the era of print and conventional broadcasting.
In the general election of 2019, the young have a further opportunity to make their voice count. Pushing hard for action over the climate crisis, highlighting the housing crisis and calling for a rise in living standards all help to force politicians to respond. Yet there is no more powerful a weapon, in aggregate, than the vote. In the 2017 general election, for example, there was a noticeable increase in turnout among younger voters – those in their late twenties and thirties, as compared with the vote in 2015. This, it may be assumed, was down to that cohort of people being epically badly affected by the cost of housing and the austerity drive still, at that time, being pursued by the Conservative government.
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The supposed Corbynite “youthquake” in 2017 was indeed found to be mostly a myth – but there was something in the idea of the youngish voters moving the political dial, in this case to the left. Today, tellingly, all the main parties have abandoned austerity and are much more willing to spend and borrow to improve public services.
So voting makes a difference, demonstrably, and there is no limit to the support that should be given to the efforts of groups such as My Life My Say and Vote for Your Future that work hard to get young people on the electoral register – the first step in democratic emancipation.
But there is much more that can be done. One of the least-covered but most pernicious of the acts of the coalition government of 2010-15 (whatever its other achievements) was the abolition of bulk registration for university students, enacted in 2014. After all, students account for around half of young people, and many may not even be aware that they could register at university as well as at home. The timing of this December election, coinciding as it does with the end of term, is a particularly unfortunate one – and the opposition parties caved in too easily to government demands to hold it on 12 December than a few, vital, days earlier.
If the Conservatives do win the next election, they promise (at least in the now-redundant Queen’s Speech) to bring in legislation to make photo identification compulsory at polling stations – a grievous suppressing of the franchise that restricts human rights for people of all ages. It is widely thought to be a move that will unfairly favour the Conservatives and, it might be fairly assumed, there will be more such ploys to come.
Instead, the government should be trying to maximise the vote and turnout. All manner of public authorities – the DVLA, HMRC, the passports office – hold relevant data on individuals that could be used to enrol them to vote automatically. As Mete Coban argues in our Voices section, if every major tech brand sent out a push notification to young users it would make a huge difference to getting young people onto the register. Social media companies – so powerful these days and so much a part of our democratic process, willingly or not – should be encouraged to do so.
In any event, anyone eligible – including Commonwealth citizens – can register for the general election here. The more who do so, the more the election will count.