Young people voted in greater numbers in 2017 than in previous elections. Young people were also particularly involved in and because of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign. Yet the result looks to be a weaker, less stable Conservative government propped up by the DUP. Gemma Bird considers the implications of this irony for the future of political engagement among the young.
The 8th of June 2017 has been heralded by commentators as the day that young people found their voice in electoral terms. Owen Jones presented Labour’s gain as the victory of the youth whilst some politicians and media sources are claiming a surge of up to 72% turnout amongst 18-24 year olds and political scholars are admitting their predictions were out of touch.
Whilst we have to approach these numbers with caution, anecdotal evidence does suggest that there has indeed been an uplift of young people involving themselves at the ballot box, on the door step, and at political rallies. So what happens next?
A return to the status quo?
The day after the election we learnt that Theresa May has formed an alliance with the DUP to allow her to rebuild a Conservative-led government, returning herself as Prime Minister at the head of ‘good ship Brexit’. This is, in some senses, ‘business as usual’ in the Conservative Party. Whilst this has repercussions politically and for the economic and political future of the UK, there are also key democratic questions that we need to keep in mind, especially with regards to what message this sends to the young people who voted for change, came close to achieving it, and are now facing a return to the status quo. What will this mean for political engagement going forward?
Over the past decade we have seen a constant rhetoric amongst politicians, academics, and the media of a disaffected youth who have failed to do their duty as citizens – an issue of falling turnout more broadly, but with a particular focus on those aged 18-24. Last year’s referendum led to further speculation around the question of youth engagement, with initial polls suggesting it remained lower than other groups, with an estimated turnout of only ‘36 percent of 18-24 year olds’ being predicted and then discredited.
The Financial Times went further than to simply comment on the referendum itself, and instead argued that ‘as is usually the case, there was a slight general trend for turnout to increase in line with average age’, suggesting that youth disenfranchisement is a constant in British politics, and a constant that is to be expected. Park argued, as long ago as 2004, that there was a growing disaffection with formal politics, a distrust in politicians and a general feeling that politicians just don’t speak to young people on the issues that matter to them.
Whilst there have been numerous calls for the importance of recognising different forms of engagement, not least by myself, there is a recognition and a resignation that it is the ballot box that speaks the loudest to politicians. It is the ballot box that provides a feedback loop for politicians. But what, then, happens when young people accept the ballot box as being their connection to politicians and then politicians still don’t listen? What happens when turnout is high, when change is possible, but the status quo continues? What will happen to youth turnout going forward?
What’s the alternative?
There seems to be three options here, the first being that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party have spoken to a group that have previously been disinterested, and has ignited within them a sense of activism. A message that has been supported by Grime artist Stormzy in an interview in the Guardian, celebrating Labour’s gains and asking young people to continue along this path of turning out and making their voices heard through many forms of engagement.
The second is that we will see a further drop in electoral involvement but an increase in alternative forms of engagement – through art, music, film, protest and through poetry, to name just a few. A model of ‘cultural displacement’ in which the younger electorate feels engaged with political issues but no longer trusts the electoral system to deliver the necessary change, or the ballot box to act as an effective feedback loop will turn to alternative approaches, as diverse as ‘demonstrating and boycotting but also guerrilla gardening, volunteering, flash mobs’ – or even twitter.
The third option, and the one that is of real concern for the future of British democracy, is that the outcome of an election in which youth turnout was high and Labour out-performed expectations, still produces a Conservative government led by Theresa May. This could lead to a growing sense of disaffection amongst younger voters stemming from the idea that whatever happens their voice really doesn’t matter. It is this that must be avoided; it is this that must be fought against; and it this that we, as academics, have a responsibility to fight against.
Academia recognises that low turnout doesn’t necessarily mean low levels of engagement, but academia also has a responsibility to have that conversation with politicians and policy makers, to recommend to those outside of the academy that there are multiple forms of engagement, and that whatever happens with turnout going forward, young people care about politics – and this election has been evidence of just how much.
First published on the LSE blog and reproduced here with permission