If you are young, let’s say 18 to 24, your vote can change this country. And the real beauty of it: it doesn’t even matter who you vote for.
You might have seen the grim statistics. Only 43% of young voters (18-24) turned up at the last General Election. By contrast, 78% of people over 65 turned up. People aged 18-24 make up only 11% of the total voting population. People over 65 make up 23%. The youth vote is (slightly) more split than the old vote. The numbers don’t add up. So how could the youth vote ever change anything?
The case has been made that if 78% of young people voted, it might swing a narrow Conservative majority into a hung Parliament. This is because 2 million more votes would be cast, of which 43% would go to Labour, which in turn would mean about 10 extra red seats in a mostly blue chamber. Hardly a change in the country then, is it? Well, bear with me. The numbers are not the full story.
The reality is that in a country with such a strange way to elect representatives, it is nearly impossible to say how many more votes it takes to elect 10 more people. Recall that in 2015, 3.8 million UKIP voters only translated into one seat, and the party has since seen its one representative jump ship. By contrast, it only took 34,244 votes, on average, to elect a single Conservative MP.
This is because the Conservatives have the most physically concentrated voters of any party campaigning in the whole of the UK, and UKIP have the least. A little-mentioned fact about the 2015 general election is that Ed Miliband actually won 1.5% more votes than Gordon Brown’s Labour did in 2010, but as a result Labour lost 26 seats. David Cameron won only 0.8% more votes than he did in 2010, but this translated 24 more seats for Conservatives.
So what does this mean for age demographics? Well, in essence the UK general election campaign is not about votes, but about physically concentrated votes. In order to win a general election, a party will not only woo voters, but attempt to splinter the opposition’s vote. The fewer voters it has to woo, the more its efforts can be concentrated on discouraging the other side’s vote and vice versa. Far from being a thorn in the Tories’ backside, UKIP was actually the best thing they could have hoped for. If working class voters have doubts about who to vote for, as they did in 2015, the Conservatives only need to rely on their most reliable voters—the over 65s. Recall David Cameron’s absence in TV debates.
You may have noticed that election pledges are very often aimed at older voters. Think pensions triple-lock. Winter fuel allowance. In-home social care. You may also have noticed that younger voters are barely mentioned in the election pledges, and get stuffed in the post-election policies. Think tuition fees introduction/increase/further increase/etc. Lack of affordable housing policies. Terrible infrastructure decisions. Young people study, live on the cheap and travel to work. Pensioners don’t study, have more wealth and don’t work.
The surgical precision of pensioner policy is not primarily because older voters live in concentrated areas. Rather, it is because they are dependable and mostly loyal to Conservatives. If a party has a loyal voter base it can count on, all the party needs to do in order to win in a country with first-past-the-post elections is to attempt to disperse the opposing side’s vote and discourage all the wild card voters. If only pensioners vote (and vote they will), Conservatives win. The smaller the number of young voters, the greater the victory.
A disillusioned, badly informed and physically spread youth vote is therefore exactly what a party with a loyal and dependable pensioner vote wants, because that is how elections are won. Back when Labour could count their Scottish seats before they hatched and when the working-class vote was loyal to Red, this was Labour’s strategy too—recall that Tony Blair actually introduced tuition fees and some of the housing policies that led to skyrocketing house prices from 1997 onwards (until then the house prices had pretty much flat-lined). Britain has a disillusioned, badly informed and physically dispersed youth vote, and the Conservatives reap the electoral rewards.
But note the latest election manifestos. Suddenly Labour is set to abolish tuition fees, Liberal Democrats want to redo the Brexit referendum and even the Conservatives are (modestly) getting rid of winter fuel allowances. These are policies aimed at wooing young people. What has changed?
Well, in June 2016 4 million new voters turned up at the ballot boxes. Nobody quite knows who these people are and where they came from, but looks they are the disillusioned—young people and others. When the choice is stark—leave or remain—people who previously didn’t turn up because they couldn’t see a clear choice among the main parties or candidates, will turn up. This, in turn, starts to change what parties put in their manifestos. Who knows, maybe these 4 million sleepers will turn up again.
That is how a strong youth vote can change the country, and it doesn’t even matter who they vote for. What matters is that young people turn up at all, though they must do so in great numbers. Once the election data rolls in and the political parties realise that young people turned up again and are now in the ‘dependable voters’ group, the fight will be on to win those votes over. Prepare for falling house prices, falling tuition fees and better infrastructure. Once the fight is won, prepare for another voter group to be neutralised—perhaps even pensioners.
So young people of Britain: vote. For literally anyone. If you can’t think of who to vote for, pick the one with the silliest name. Your future is at stake.
Lead image by Paul Sableman.