Can Corbyn keep the faith with young voters?

Young woman holding 'For the Many' placard among crowd listening to Jeremy Corbyn

On the 8th of June, my school held a mock election. I was responsible for instructing people at the ‘polling station’ and counting the votes afterwards. Most people at my school could not vote in the real election that day, and were happy to get this chance. The results were revealing.

Of course, there were instances when boys tried to vote UKIP “for a laugh” (UKIP weren’t standing in Edinburgh South West) and others committed electoral fraud. However, I was surprised at the amount of people who made an educated vote and seemed to truly care about their voices being heard. After the real election, Labour MP David Lammy tweeted that 72% of 18-25 year olds had turned out to vote. In both my school’s vote and the general election, one thing seemed to become clear: as far as young people were concerned, Jeremy Corbyn had won.

Usually, most young voters feel disillusioned by politics and therefore youth turnout is always low. So what changed? I asked Ellen Robson, a 15-year-old who was thoroughly engaged in this election: “People have been targeting [the youth vote] more … [Jeremy Corbyn] recognises that they’re the next generation and need to get involved in politics. He’s not like other politicians – he does things because he cares, not for his own political gain.”

Not part of the establishment

This seems to reflect what many young people think: Jeremy Corbyn is not seen as a part of the establishment. In 1984, he got arrested for breaking a protest ban, while campaigning against apartheid. In 2003, he gave a speech at Hyde Park, the largest demonstration in British history, against the Iraq war.

He also appears more authentic than other politicians, as Michael MacLeod, a 20-year-old Corbyn supporter, tells me: “Theresa May was manufacturing what she was going to say … whereas Jeremy Corbyn was talking honestly and openly. Even Tory voters can see he is genuine.”

Jeremy Corbyn rides a bike, which entrenches the idea that he leads a modest life (unlike Boris Johnson, who is still associated with the Bullingdon Club). He owns an allotment in north London, which he tends with care. This creates a huge contrast with the lives that other high-profile politicians lead. Young people respect the fact that he has never been and never will be a part of Boris Johnson and David Cameron’s old boys network.

Tabloids and newspapers also played a big role in the campaign. There were headlines such as “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-bin” and “Jezza’s Jihadi Comrades” from the Sun. However, young people aren’t usually big readers of the mainstream press. So what was their main source of influence? “Mainly social media,” says MacLeod. And “Jeremy Corbyn doing videos with rappers.”

Indeed, many young people were swayed by their favourite musicians, such as grime artists Akala and JME. JME urged people to vote, saying: “Before you vote, I want you to find out who you should be voting for and why you’re voting for them.” Akala tweeted:

“I am not and probably never will be a Labour supporter. However I will be voting for the first time and I’ll be voting for @jeremycorbyn.”

Labour manifesto offered hope

Seeing these personalities getting so heavily involved in the election, people who had never really done so before, created a sense that it was young people’s turn to have a say. There were also recurring memes about Theresa May’s “fields of wheat” and being “strong and stable”. Young people felt that the Tories were finally being exposed and stripped down to their core on social media. They were the object of ridicule, Theresa May painted as a completely delusional politician.

I asked Grant Aitken, a representative for Scottish Labour Young Socialists, how Corbyn got so much support in so little time. “When he released the manifesto, that was the

An election poster with words Real Hope imposed on image of Jeremy Corbyn: credit Rik V Parsons
Real Hope poster promoted on Facebook during general election campaign in Edinburgh. Design Rick V Parsons

turning point,” he says. To young people, Labour’s manifesto conveyed hope, while the Tory manifesto seemed stale. As John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said in a seminar at the David Hume Institute the week after the general election: “[The Conservative manifesto] seemed to be written on the presumption that the Conservatives were going to win the election — therefore we will tell you about all the nasty medicine that we’re going to have to administer.”

Perhaps Corbyn’s positive ideas appealed to young people more than May’s “nasty medicine”, causing the Tories to lose so many votes that some of their policies weren’t even included in the Queen’s speech.

“Labour were offering things that were relevant to [young people’s] realities,” Sean Duffy, secretary at Campaign for Socialism, tells me, referring to Labour’s policies on scrapping tuition fees and capping private sector rents. For many young people, going to university and buying a house seems like dreams only previous generations were allowed to have. If Labour can stay true to these pledges to help the many, not the few, then maybe they can strengthen their web of support.

Corbyn must stay connected

Jeremy Corbyn has gained a huge amount of supporters, but this might not last. At the beginning of 2017, only 26% of people in the UK trusted their government, according to a survey by PR firm Edelman. This is why it is vital that Corbyn stays connected. Trust could easily slip away if he stopped campaigning and pushing young people to join.

Talking to young people, there is a sense that he will need to demonstrate that he still has the same values and enthusiasm, that it wasn’t all for show. What will happen if he does not meet expectations and people feel let down, which is not entirely unimaginable?

This is especially true in Scotland, where Labour still has a lot of work to do, says Duffy. “It is still associated with Better Together,” he says. Sure enough, Scottish Labour have been weak for the past couple of years. They won more votes in this election, but the party needs to reshape itself if it wants to keep growing.

Like the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour’s election campaign was hugely focused on independence. Perhaps the party should concentrate more on policies that tackle problems the Scottish working class and youth face, instead of keeping up a negative campaign, which strangely resembles the Tory strategy.

Almost a holy figure

At Glastonbury this year, the infectious optimism created by Corbyn spread like wildfire through crowds chanting “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!”. The same enthusiasm swept quickly throughout the country, when young people realised that this was an opportunity they could seize with both hands to change their country for the better. Corbyn is seen as an honest politician, one who has created a manifesto which could truly change people’s lives. In the process, he has become a huge hit in popular culture.

When was the last time a politician was viewed as a hero by young people? For some, he has almost become a holy figure, a Messiah of politics. “There’s this underlying feeling of optimism, that this is the beginning of the end for the Tory party,” Lauren Gilmour, from Campaign for Socialism, told me. Her message to young people who did not get the result they wanted is to not lose hope and continue the fight.

Now is the time to put pressure on the currently weakened government. But Labour supporters also need to properly scrutinise what the party is offering as an alternative, to see if Jeremy Corbyn has what it takes to be the next prime minister. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes clear whether this popular leader and his young followers will keep up the momentum.

Featured image: Jeremy Corbyn rally at West Kirby: photo Andy Miah CC By NC-2.0