Don’t Write Off First-Time Voters
Contrary to stereotype, young voters were more politically engaged this election than ever before
Cancel the Russell Brand revolution: young people are politically engaged after all. Despite the grandiloquent comedian’s attempt to persuade fans to abstain, figures from the British Election Study suggest that 58 per cent of 18-24 year olds cast their vote on May 7. Not bad, considering that the UK turnout across all ages was 66 per cent. It’s an improvement on the youth vote in 2010 (52 per cent) — and let’s not mention 2005 (38 per cent).
That Brand made a violent U-turn three days before the election and urged his fans to vote Labour makes him a hypocrite and, politically, a loser. It also makes him responsible for the countless fans who didn’t register to vote on his advice; well over a million 18-24 year olds failed to join the electoral register.
But celebrity dandies aside, it remains cause for celebration that the generation branded irredeemably apathetic by the media ultimately turned out to vote in droves.
Many of these young voters will have been, like me, one of the 3.3 million first-time voters born after May 9, 1992. We have long been considered politically indifferent: unconvinced by parties’ promises and susceptible to the revolutionary logorrhea of YouTube celebrities. Last year, a survey suggested only 41 per cent of us were certain to vote — and of those, many thought that Jamie Oliver, Jeremy Clarkson or, yes, Russell Brand would do as well as Cameron or Miliband. After the election, social media was full of newly-eligible voters who hadn’t gone to the polls explaining that “one of the reasons I don’t vote is because I honestly don’t think it makes a difference.” Many of us remain, rightly or wrongly, deeply resentful of Nick Clegg’s U-turn on university fees. Politicians just don’t understand us: so why should we bother to understand them?
As someone who has just cast my first vote, I don’t believe the media’s dismissal of us as disengaged louts. It ignores the nationwide drive to engage first-timers, which has been extraordinarily successful. The National Union of Students launched #GenerationVote last October, a campaign which saw Liverpool Student Union hand out free pizza to those registering to vote. The University of East Anglia, meanwhile, catered for the lactose-intolerant with a petting zoo for students attending a meeting about voting options. Of course such incentives trivialise a serious democratic right. Students will sign anything for free pizza; it doesn’t mean they crawl out of bed and go to the polling station. But the message got through that voting is — at the risk of sounding anything but — cool.
It would be impossible to underestimate the power of social media in this, of course. For #GE2015, politics was no longer confined to newspapers but nearly broke the internet with memes and hash tags. Potential young voters were inundated with politics — but to the severe detriment of politicians’ credibility. In the omniscient online environment, Britain’s future leaders became little more than reality TV stars, whose careers could be decided on their ability to eat a bacon sandwich. Are young voters really that superficial? Unfortunately, I suspect so: polls have suggested significant numbers would vote for Boris Johnson as Prime Minister because of his hairstyle.
A new MP who might want to decrease her Twitter volubility is Mhairi Black. For evidence that first-time voters are politically engaged, one need only look to Paisley and Renfrewshire South, where the 20-year-old Black’s first-time vote was for herself. Her triumph over Douglas Alexander suggests that her constituents, at least, do not hold with the idea of youth apathy. But Black is horribly young. Will she really be taken seriously? This is, after all, a fourth-year Glasgow University student who only a few years ago was tweeting about her love of alcopops and who last year voiced her desire, on camera, to “put the nut on” (head butt) Labour councillors after the independence referendum. Adolescent blunders shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but these displays of teenage idiocy are so recent that it’s hard to believe Black has outgrown them. Her youth means she’ll either do exactly what she is told by the SNP, or go wildly off the rails. Luckily, Twitter is on hand to keep us updated.
Black’s politics certainly chime with that other stereotype of the politicised youth: that we are all left-wing idealists, out to make the world a fairer place, one student demo at a time. Despite inevitable disparity, polling data consistently suggests that first-timers favour Labour. An older left-wing colleague summed up youthful Conservative sympathies thus: “If you’re a Tory at 21, you’ll be BNP by the time you’re 30.” Conservatism is for the old and jaded: right-wing first-timers are letting the side down.
A glance at Facebook immediately post-election seemed to serve as confirmation. After that 10pm exit poll, my newsfeed became the script for a straight-to-DVD horror film, as friends predicted imminent apocalypse. “I am truly scared to see what the next five years holds,” wrote one. Another wailed about having to “spend the next 5 years seeing the NHS and everything else go to shit”. One 10.01pm post simply read, “RIGHT, HAND ME THE RED WINE. SHIT.” There was just one lonely “Glad there’s another five years of common sense Britain” post, swiftly drowned in a torrent of doom-mongering. And two days after the election, the first anti-Tory demonstration outside Downing Street was dominated by Topshop-clad students who looked barely old enough to have voted — indeed, one of those arrested was just 16.
But if the stereotype of the apathetic first-timer needs overturning, so does the claim that we are all lefties. If, as has been claimed, pre-election polls were skewed by “shy Tories” failing to declare their true political sympathies, imagine how many unspoken Conservatives lurk in the generation who are presumed to lean Left? The election result suggests that there must be some first-timers who, rather than scream and scrawl graffiti about the need to make the world fairer but do little themselves about it, instead have quiet faith in the ability of Cameron et al to do Britain good. Indeed, I was one of them. Perhaps as second-timers we’ll be mature enough to announce ourselves.