The millennials and politics: are they getting into the swing of it?

Published on Incomes and Inequality, Intergenerational Commission

There’s a lot to take away from the most unexpected of election nights. Election campaigns and manifestos do matter after all. Conservative and Labour MPs are much better than pandas (at population growth in Scotland). Labour can win non-London seats south of the Watford gap. And voters don’t seem to appreciate leaders calling for yet more elections and referendums. One truism remains though – it’s not a good idea for a Prime Minister to call an election when voters’ wages are falling. Who’d have thought.

Arguably the most fascinating theme of the night though has been signs of a surge in political engagement among young people as questions of intergenerational fairness rise up the agenda. Now, of course, we need to take specific claims about the extent of a turnout surge amongst the young with a pinch of salt for one simple reason – we won’t get the first estimate of turnout for different ages for another few weeks (courtesy of Ipsos-Mori). The British Election Survey – which provides the definitive age profile of voters – isn’t published until the Autumn. So disregard anything you’ve seen claiming that turnout amongst the young hit 72 per cent.

However, there are signs that young people did indeed turnout in higher numbers than we’ve been used to. Firstly, they said they would. Survation reported that proportion of 18-24 year olds who intended to vote on Thursday had almost doubled since 2015. Second, turnout is up overall at 69 per cent. Given that the post-1992 fall in turnout has been driven by young people not voting, it’s not unreasonable to expect a good amount of that rise in turnout to have been driven by young people returning to the polling booths.

Third, Labour doing better than expected in the polls could in part be explained by a higher youth turnout given their stronger than average, and growing, propensity to vote Labour. Fourth, a look at the some of the striking individual constituency results suggest a big millennial swing. Labour (unbelievably) took the university town of Canterbury on a 9.33% per cent swing from Conservative to Labour. Battersea and Putney in London saw swings of around 10 per cent, something that Putney MP Justine Greening suggested was driven by the demographic profile of these inner London seats.

We’ll have to wait for the final numbers, but the above is enough for me to conclude something significant is going on. Which begs the question: why? It’s likely to include the normal stuff of politics – the combination of personalities and policies – but let’s not forget the role played by the underlying state of Britain.

Much of the discussion during the campaign has focused on the specific ability of Jeremy Corbyn (age 68) to enthuse young people. That has clearly been the case amongst Labour members, and the election was a test of whether the same would be true of voters.

Now much of the criticism of the Labour leader over the past two years is that he represented a radical and risky break from anything we’ve seen from the mainstream parties in the last 20 years. The conventional wisdom was that such an outsider wouldn’t play well with the dominant over-50s vote. What may have been underestimated is quite how big an impact that outsider status would have with the young. In particular, the combination of the Brexit vote and Corbyn’s election as Labour leader seems to have been to draw a line in the sand with Labour as the party of government back in 2010. In 2015 the young weren’t enthused by what, fairly inevitably, looked like a choice between the actual incumbents or the other incumbents (who oversaw the financial crisis). Jeremy Corbyn and post-Brexit labour were, to put it mildy, anything but incumbents.

This personality of the leader and party combined during the campaign with what amounts to a straightforward election giveaway targeted at young voters – with £11bn set aside for abolishing tuition fees amounting to the single biggest commitment in their manifesto and unsurprisingly cut-through with young people used to manifestos focusing on older voters.

But these questions of political personalities and policies shouldn’t distract from the big underlying substance that is surely driving the rise in engagement amongst young people – the fact that their future looks bleaker than they any of us expected it to. This fact motivates both the work of our Intergenerational Commission and the higher turnout amongst the young.

In the past two decades, young people have seen the dream of home ownership pushed further out of reach – the number of young families owning their own home has halved since the 1990s in places as far flung as Bristol, Manchester and Leeds. This is not just a London problem.

In the last decade, young people have also borne the brunt of Britain’s unprecedented pay squeeze, as well as wider labour market shifts. Young people experienced the tightest pay squeeze in the wake of the financial crisis – with real pay falling by 13 per cent. A decade on they are still moving jobs less frequently than they used to, and those born in the late 80s are the first cohort in living memory to earn less than the one born 15 years before them.

This grim picture is reinforced by a welfare state that has seen support for young working families paired back while pensioner benefits are protected, and an end to once generous defined benefit pensions.

For decades, we’ve talked about politicians chasing the ‘grey vote’ and how young people only have themselves to blame if politicians ignore a group who fail to turn up on polling day. Perhaps the vote to leave the EU – a vote in which a reported 71 per cent of 18-24 year olds were on the losing side – was the tipping point that has reversed the turnout slide.

Today, it looks like a rising youth vote has benefitted Labour. But it wasn’t always this way – Thatcher enjoyed a lead among young people in the 1983 election. So all political parties have voters and seats to gain by appealing to a young population that are returning to the ballot box in droves, especially since history teaches us that once young people have voted once they are much more likely to turn out again in future. That fact is a big win from yesterday’s election – and one that will have a legacy well after the fun and games of the coming days and weeks has died down.