Ben Bowman

How many young people will vote - and who will they vote for?

The majority vote among young people, since 1997, is for no-one at all! In other words, if you were born in the '80s, ‘90s or ‘00s you are least likely of any age group to vote when you turn 18, and tend to continue not to vote for the rest of your life. At General Elections since 1997, about 45% of young people vote, to 55% who do not. A lot of people at all ages are reluctant voters who distrust politicians and political parties - in many ways, it looks like young people are the group most likely to follow up on that distrust and not vote at all.

The reasons are very complicated and to some extent, we are relying on guesswork. For instance, in the 2010 General Election, there was a big increase in the proportion of young men voting. We don’t really know why! Complexities like this are the reason that the common stereotype that young people are apathetic about politics is actually quite controversial among experts. There are deeper things happening.

In the end, forecasts mean nothing. It is up to young voters.

This comes down to more than just agitating young people with slogans and celebrity endorsements. Young people need policies that speak to their needs and will have an effect on their everyday lives, and clear guidance on how to register and where to go to vote. Most of all, they need organization.

Things are looking up for the young vote in 2017. We are seeing record breaking registration among young voters. In the EU Referendum, although no-one can be sure, we estimate around two-thirds of young people who were eligible to vote turned out. Most of these young voters will have been disappointed by the result, because around 73% of young people voted to Remain.

So who are young people supporting?

Let’s take the cautious estimate of Prof Michael Bruter and Dr Sarah Harrison that 64% of young people voted in the Referendum and apply that turnout to YouGov’s April survey of voting intentions, this is an idea of where the young vote is going in 2017:

First of all, 64% turnout among voters aged 18-24 would be the highest at a General Election since 1992. Achieving this will require organization and effort the likes of which we have never seen in UK politics. This would require a push on registration and real, concrete plans for raising turnout. Not just YouTube videos and insults at young voters but buddy systems to make voting social and Party activists going door to door to meet young mothers, school leavers and other voters.

We should be doing this regardless of our ideology, but the Party with most to gain is Labour. Recent polling suggests Labour leads the Conservatives among voters under 40. The Party must act now to capitalize on their lead, with targeted Facebook advertising and visits to local groups like playgroups two strategies they could use to make gains.

They could also do better among students, who vote more than other young people. Although many people assume the student vote will be critical in University towns, it is believed the majority of students (around 60%) actually vote in their home constituency. Labour nationally, but in some localities the Greens and Liberal Democrats, need to tell student supporters whether to vote at home or at Uni and - and this may be critical - how to register for a postal vote if they will be at home in June.


10 critical seats for the student vote

It is not long since the announcement of the election, and we will know more as the campaign progresses, but here are some seats where the student vote may well be critical - if students are aware how powerful a vote in their University constituency could be.

City of Chester

Labour took Chester in 2015 with a majority of just 93. Every voter counts when the margins are that thin, and with more than 10% of the population registered as a full-time student, Labour will need every vote they can get. Chester has long been a marginal seat where the smallest influence can push one or other Party ahead, and the election in 2015 may well have been decided by the Greens who didn’t stand, and who have not named a candidate for 2017.


Ealing Central and Acton

Another wafer-thin majority of 274 in this marginal that Dr Rupa Huq won for Labour from the Conservatives in 2015. The Conservative challenger, Joy Morrissey, and the Liberal Democrat, Jon Ball, are both local councillors who will be hoping to gain support from residents and grassroots organizations, especially Jon Ball who can campaign as a pro-EU candidate in this Remain voting constituency. Ealing Central and Acton is looking like a very close call between these three candidates.


Brentford and Isleworth

Nearby is another close marginal where Labour pulled off victory in 2015, with a majority of 465, just short of 1% of the electorate. Again, more than 10% of the adult population is registered in full-time education. Conservative candidate Mary McLeod, who won her nomination ahead of the Olympic rower James Cracknell, is a trustee of the Shelter Project Hounslow, which may give her some credibility among students who favour policies for social justice.


Bristol West

A complex seat with 20% of voters registered as students and that may end up a three-way fight, Bristol West is a target for the Green Party and their candidate, Molly Scott Cato.

Bristol is strongly anti-Brexit and looks positive for Labour, with a Labour Mayor and a Labour majority Council. The news Labour are campaigning for Brexit as a done deal may mean it will require a strong campaign from Bristol West incumbent Thangam Debbonaire (Lab).  She won the seat from Stephen Williams (Lib Dems) whose vote fell in the crash of the Liberal Democrats, from 26,593 in 2010 to just over 12,103 in 2015.

Any reawakening for the Liberal Democrats will need to see gains in Brexit-sceptic Bristol: if so, Bristol West could end up a three-way marginal between Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.


Ilford North

Labour’s small majority of 589 (1.2 per cent) cannot be defended without the students of this London constituency. Since the announcement of the election, UKIP have withdrawn their candidate and advised Brexit supporters to vote for the Conservative, Lee Scott, against incumbent and prominent Remainer Wes Streeting. It was a somewhat odd decision - the borough voted majority to remain - but when the margin is so small, Lee Scott will welcome every bit of help.


Norwich South

The Liberal Democrats gained this seat in 2010 and lost it again in 2015, coming fourth behind Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens. The seat had been solid for Labour before 2010 and the Lib Dem surge - and crash, after five years in coalition - is partly credited to the students of the constituency. This is another seat that may be a three or even four-way marginal where the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green Party are all in with a shot.


Lancaster & Fleetwood

In 2015, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) predicted six seats where the student vote would swing a Conservative constituency to Labour. Only one prediction turned out right - Lancaster & Fleetwood. Extremely close in 2010, a switch back to the Conservatives would likely require a low turnout (or a change in vote) by students in the constituency.


Wolverhampton South West

Rob Marris was first elected to this seat for Labour with a large student population in 2001. He lost in 2010 to Paul Uppal (Con) before regaining the seat in 2015. In a to-and-fro battleground constituency, Marris has a majority of just 801.


Edinburgh South

Students of the University of Edinburgh, and of Edinburgh Napier, may make this seat something of a bellwether for the chances of the SNP. Far from a safe seat for Labour, Edinburgh South has in the past seen strong turnout for the Liberal Democrats.


Sheffield Hallam

Finally, the constituency of the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is going to be a battleground between Clegg, the incumbent, and new Labour candidate Jared O’Mara (the Conservative candidate has not yet been named). Labour’s attempt at what the Guardian called a “decapitation” strike on the Liberal Democrat leader in 2015 came within 5% of the vote of winning the seat. We may learn from Sheffield Hallam whether students and other young voters are ready to forgive the Lib Dems for their years in the coalition Government.


Ben Bowman is a Teaching Fellow in Comparative Politics at the University of Bath.


ImageEdwin Andrade