By Tristan Cross
12 Jun 2017
Decades of political commentary has been spent pondering why young people can’t be bothered to vote; why they forfeit the opportunity to shape their future knowing full well there is an older generation unwaveringly committed to ambling up the polling station and exercising their democratic rights; why they seem to succumb so indifferently, almost masochistically, to whatever fate their elders decide for them. Early reports have suggested 72% of 18-25-year-olds turned out to vote on Thursday, a monumental leap from the 43% that turned out in 2015, and, if accurate, even outstrips the overall turnout of 68% (itself the highest for 20 years). Now the commentary will now be spent trying to answer precisely the opposite. Why did so many young people bother to vote this time? To my mind, the factors behind their inactivity and sudden activity are exactly the same.
There is no official data on exactly how the youth voted, but given an ICM poll surveying this group a week ago gave Labour a 51-point lead over the Conservatives, it doesn’t seem particularly controversial they had a not-insubstantial influence on a General Election result which saw the Tories, against expectation, majestically fail to secure enough seats to form even an overall majority, while Labour posted their best share of the vote since 2001, and their biggest vote share increase since 1945.
There will be inevitable focus on the most visible elements of the Labour campaign, and the impact of yung person preserves: social media, celebs and memes. Make no mistake, the memes were extremely good. Unless you’d somehow cultivated bizarre enough browsing habits to baffle Facebook’s algorithms and bypass every British person on Twitter, it was hard to go online and not be served up a never-ending stream of Jeremy Corbyn, every available permutation of his face being spliced into every conceivable pop culture reference. Benefitting from an effortlessly personable public persona, Corbyn’s image could always be presented as in-on-the-joke, in diametric contrast to Theresa May, who somehow transcended the previous known limits set by every patterless out-of-touch-by-numbers politician, responding to a question asking about the “naughtiest thing” she’d ever done by telling a farcically dull anecdote about running through fields of wheat. Which then became a meme.
There will be much made, too, of Corbyn’s celebrity endorsements. From Steve Coogan, to Lily Allen, Stephen Hawking, Danny DeVito, Lena Dunham and seemingly the entire grime scene (Stormzy, JME, Novelist, Akala, Lowkey to name but a few), a sprawling list of Names mobilised behind the Labour leader, to the extent it was increasingly the celebrity whose profile was improved by dint of association to Corbyn, rather than the other way round. It’s harder to conceive of another politician wandering out on stage at a Libertines gig and making a speech that could be met with raucous chanting, rather than deafening boos and bottles of piss to the head.
With a cacophony of received wisdom suggesting the Labour campaign was unelectable and all hope futile, these factors may have had some influence in galvanizing the youth vote, in creating and maintaining a poptimism and enthusiasm around the campaign which might have otherwise petered out. However, they seem insufficient as explanation alone for such unprecedented youth turnout. After all, celeb endorsements are hardly a novelty of this election, while a political diet of memes alone would suggest a purely passive engagement. The amount of time it takes to share a video of Corbyn-as-Stormzy isn’t the same as registering to vote, and then actually bothering to do it. Nor is it equivocal to becoming part of the mass crowds that gathered to see Corbyn speak (crowds larger in number than “any leader since Churchill”, according to Michael Crick), or to volunteering to canvass in such numbers that some Labour branches had to redeploy their eager excess elsewhere. It is important not to attribute this sudden uptake in youth participation to entirely surface-level reasoning; that it wasn’t just a superficial love of pop-culture trends; of Corbyn as an image-signifier, empty beyond his memeable qualities; or of credulously following whatever a celebrity had told them to do. Useful analysis can’t dismiss this as some frivolous and temporary anomaly, a great big collective in-joke the irony-addled youth will move on from as soon as they find a new one. This wasn’t ‘Boaty McBoatface.’ At this moment in time, the younger generation – a generation that perhaps now encompasses people up to and including those in their 30s – have a political energy that the complacent ruling class would be reckless to ignore.
Someone once said, and many incredibly tedious people have since repeated, an adage to the effect: “If you aren’t liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, and if you aren’t conservative as you grow older, you have no brain.” It’s a platitude that proposes that ‘liberal’ beliefs are based on naïve principlism, and ‘conservative’ beliefs on sensible pragmatism. It implies that people only care about left ideas of welfare and distribution of wealth when they have no responsibilities or stake in the game, so can afford to back them without suffering any potential ramifications, but will later abandon these ideas as soon as they come into various things they feel they ought to be selfish about - income, property, business.
Historically, this adage rang true at the ballot box, in contemporary Britain at least. The older generations favour conservatism and turn out consistently, while the more left-leaning younger generations don’t. This was one of the primary reasons many commentators forecast Labour – whose leadership under Corbyn has ushered in a relatively significant ideological departure from the party’s more recent trajectory, and a return to its more traditional left-leaning values – for electoral catastrophe. Many invoked the defeats of the past, particularly 1983, where the socialist-leaning manifesto of Michael Foot’s Labour (the last iteration of the party that resembled Corbyn’s) was described as “the longest suicide note in history.” Even the left-leaning mainstream media turned on Corbyn, citing that no party in history had been able to close the gap of 24 points by which Labour trailed the Tories when the election was called, and that this spelt doom. However, throughout this campaign cycle, there has been far too much emphasis on ham-fisted interpretations of the past applied to the present, and far too little on the material living conditions and circumstances experienced by young people today, and the cultural shift which has ensued.
The current 18-25-year-old generation are part of the first to grow up knowing that, in the current system, there is a distinct possibility that they will never own a house within their lifetimes. They aren’t guaranteed a career or the security of a pension. They can’t even be sure that they won’t one day find themselves forced to use a food bank. The jobs market is littered with decreasing opportunity outside the major cities (debatably inside, too), suppressed wages, zero-hours contracts, unpaid internships, ‘gig economy’ exploitation, aggressive automation and the constant threat of outsourcing. The fact that home-ownership is increasingly, exponentially spiralling out-of-reach is compounded by the cost of rent doing the exact same. Pensions, and retiring in time to draw one, practically seems a relic of a bygone era, as inconceivable as owning a gramophone, or having an EU passport. This is a generation who grew up knowing no other reality than the NHS, schools and other public services having to take ‘efficiency measures’ (cuts, by any other name) and that university was a privilege that had to be paid for.
There has been much resent towards the perceived selfishness of older generations who grew up with the advantages achieved in the post-war consensus; universal healthcare, workers rights, free university fees, a commitment to build more houses, and yet seemingly consistently vote for policy that pursues privatisation and austerity on the generations that proceed them. In particular, Brexit was crudely portrayed as a vote inflicted on the young by their elders. Now, those of a working age have to suffer the consequences of free-market capitalism – allowing for companies to outsource or move wholesale at any moment and to use the threat of this precariousness to exploit their workforce – while being actively hindered in the possibility of moving abroad themselves.
The success of neoliberalism was augmented by economic boom, particularly under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, which permitted the country’s political parties to claim the status quo needed maintaining as they converged toward one another, but there hasn’t been any such cycle of growth since 2008’s global recession. This has meant that, again, young people of a certain age haven’t experienced wider economic prosperity at any point during their adult lives. When almost every political decision in your lifetime has resulted in your living conditions being no tangibly better off, it’s no wonder the youth are disengaged from the process.
This is, I think, the crux of it. Conservatism and neoliberalism don’t operate with young people in mind. Parties don’t just prioritise the older generations because those are the sections of the electorate that will actually vote them in, they pursue policy which actively deters young people. Previous generations of youth have had very little by way of alternative choice at the ballot box, so why would they turn out? Nobody under 40 has any vivid living memory of a Labour leader with Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-public ownership, pro-corporation tax, pro-universalism, anti-austerity, anti-interventionist, anti-war, socialist politics. You would have had to have been born in 1965 to vote for Michael Foot in 1983 (which would make you around 51 now.)
Not only has politics this left-of-centre have been absent from the mainstream for over three decades, but received opinion had it that we would never have these politics again.
The right-wing’s analysis of the impact of Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees has been extremely telling. Among others, the Daily Mail called it an “£11 billion bribe” for 18 to 24-year-olds, while former Director of Communications for the Conservatives Andy Coulson described it as a “cynical offer” to “buy young votes.” Of course, every policy pledge in every political campaign in history is intended to persuade a section of the electorate to vote for you, but only a policy that directly affects young people can be dismissed as a ‘bribe.’ Given many of the 18-24 age group will have already been to university, or else might not go at all, presenting their turnout as entirely due to single-issue voting is not only disingenuous but outright false.
It’s also of particular note how ineffective the right-wing tabloids were in their attempts to dissuade Labour voters. Front page after front page alleging links between Corbyn and the IRA fell on deaf ears for those who grew up with the Good Friday Agreement, while The Sun ran a quite astonishing box-out imploring parents to “stop their kids voting”, which, if the turnout data is correct, failed miserably. That these tabloid behemoths, who pride themselves on their ability to influence the electorate, were distinctly unsuccessful in their attempts to diminish Labour’s momentum could have substantial ramifications for traditional print media’s previously unassailable stranglehold over political discourse.
Social media is routinely, and tritely, written off as an “echo chamber” which treats it as though it is still a technological novelty, rather than something that is now a ubiquity of modern life, and has been for young people since the early ‘00s, and as such, unquestionably permeates beyond the internet into the everyday. Purely anecdotally, I witnessed a difference in the tone and way in which people posted about this election on social media compared to previous campaigns. People on my Facebook that I hadn’t previously considered interested let alone engaged, were enthusiastically posting, commenting and sharing links that went beyond memes or the usual proclamations of allegiance. They were genuinely discussing it.
Since the rise of Thatcher and spin doctors, politics has increasingly shifted towards presentation over policy in a way that simply doesn’t translate to social media. The release of the Labour manifesto resulted in a significant increasing in their polling, and it’s easy to see why. It laid out a large number of progressive policies that many young people will have never seen in the mainstream before. Policies that could be discussed, dissected, enthused about and challenged. Policies that Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow Labour MPs took every opportunity to promote online. (It absolutely didn’t hurt, of course, that Corbyn was eminently memeable, meaning the party didn’t have to sacrifice presentation to present policy.) All of these posts, be it an official party video or a passionate mini-essay left under someone’s Facebook status, have a collective weight. This was something the Conservatives and their emphasis on their extremely vague ‘Strong and Stable’ slogan, took for granted.
Traditional media is a one-way dialogue in a way that social media fundamentally isn’t. You can’t interact with a newspaper which repeats a line attempting to drum it into you, but you can debate a friend who posts something to the effect online, and even the staunchest Tory supporter will have likely felt reticent posting such an obviously empty mantra. But the party gave them nothing else to post about. And you can’t be part of the ‘echo chamber’ if there’s nothing to echo. In fact, as was noted by Corbyn’s Twitter account (Retweeted 14,000 times), they pointedly didn’t once implore anyone to register to vote. They didn’t want them to, and gambled that they wouldn’t. They did.
The consequences of the youth turnout in this election are enormous. It heralds a symbolic transferal of left ideas that had long been thought left dead in the ‘80s to a generation born after it. How many previous generations did not, in fact, abandon their youthful left-wing idealism for conservative pragmatism, but simply had it ground into them that these politics were ultimately unachievable because they were entirely absent from the mainstream? How many people who hold onto these ideals will now feel empowered and invigorated to actually get into politics?
It marks considerable sea-change in the way in which the public consumes and disseminates political media. Where once the internet was able to be disregarded as an irrelevance, parties cannot simply hope that generations that have grown up with it will engage in spin in the way they might have done otherwise. It will hopefully mean that policy is returned to the forefront of discourse, with transparent rhetoric relegated to the sidelines.
Finally, it proves there is an undeniable enthusiasm for and engagement in politics from young people whose clout parties can no longer afford to write off. With the Conservative government’s paper-thin mandate hanging by the thread of an alliance with the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage DUP, another election could conceivably be called within the next year. If it is, all of the parties will have to offer policy aimed at young people. And that will fundamentally change everything.
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