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General Election 2019: Could a 'youthquake' similar to 2017 influence the outcome of the December 12 election?

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As the election campaign enters its final few days, the parties are scrabbling for every vote - and in particular the support of younger voters. Could they prove decisive in the outcome? Political editor Paul Francis reports.

It was a phenomenon that led to it being named “word of the year” by the Oxford English Dictionary. The word was ‘Youthquake’ - a way of describing the influence of young first-time voters on the election in 2017.

Jeremy Corbyn at Margate's Winter Gardens Picture: Tony Flashman
Jeremy Corbyn at Margate's Winter Gardens Picture: Tony Flashman

But two years on, will there be another political upheaval repeating the explosive impact young first-time voters had?

Or has the phenomenon actually been over-stated, allowed to gain credence despite contradictory evidence?

The impact of the student vote was widely credited with producing the shock result of 2017, propelling Labour to victory in Canterbury a seat that had been held by the Conservatives for a century.

It seemed to reflect the perception that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had cemented his reputation as the politician who had got young people engaged in politics. For a while, every music festival featured an appearance by the Labour leader, invariably greeted with the chant “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”.

In the face of polls pointing to a widening gap between Labour and the Conservatives, it might just give the former some hope that they can turn things around before December 12.

Labour's Rosie Duffield after winning the recount at the Westgate Hall, Canterbury Picture: Chris Davey
Labour's Rosie Duffield after winning the recount at the Westgate Hall, Canterbury Picture: Chris Davey

And as the battle in Canterbury looks like going down to the wire, where students place a cross on the ballot paper could be the difference between winning and losing.

Labour may take some solace from official statistics which reveal there was a significant increase in the number of people registering to vote since the announcement of the election. Of the 3.8 million who did, around 2.5m were voters under the age of 34.

Compared to the 2017 election, that represented a 31% increase when looking at the same period.

While you cannot say that all these are necessarily Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters, pollsters say they are more likely to be. Then there is the question of first time voters.

According to separate data released last week, it is first-time voters who could be decisive in the outcome of the election in key marginal seats - among them Canterbury.


New research by the Intergenerational Foundation found that since the election of 2017, 2,732 new first-time voters have registered in the constituency and the number of eligible voters aged 18 to 35 years-old is 31,620.

While there are likely to be individual differences from seat to seat, the research says that when polling data is taken into account "a higher turnout among new voters in any of these marginals would be likely to benefit Labour significantly more than it would the Conservatives".

Angus Hanton, IF co-founder said: “The raw power of Britain’s grey vote has led politicians to take the views of young people less seriously. Our report shows that young people have more voting power than either they, or many politicians, may think. Woe betide 2019 political candidates who do not take seriously their concerns – crime, mental health, housing, student debt, climate change and the environment.”

But not everyone believes that there was a youthquake and if there was, it was not on the scale some suggested.

The British Election Study says its data suggests that what happened in 2017 was not exactly as influential as some believed.

Of the 3.8 million voters who have registered since 2017 2.5m are under 34
Of the 3.8 million voters who have registered since 2017 2.5m are under 34

It says the turnout of the youngest voters in 2017 was between 40% and 50% - about the same as the previous election in 2015. A report it published on the issue cast doubt on the claims that they had been the difference between winning and losing in some seats.

It concluded: “There is no evidence of a surge in voter turnout amongst the youngest eligible voters - indeed turnout in the youngest age group is actually slightly lower in our 2017 survey.”

It also pointed to the fact that while many younger people expressed support for Labour, that did not necessarily mean they went and voted for the party in contrast to older people who are more inclined to vote.

Scepticism over the notion that younger voters were critical in the outcome in Canterbury is shared by Ben Hickman, the chairman of the local Labour association.

“I don’t think that we will have any problems getting students out [to vote]. I think we can win in Canterbury comfortably. Students are important but when you have a majority that small, I think everyone is important.We can win without students... I think there are enough here to win Canterbury again.”

Either way, the late surge in voter registration is seen as good for democracy.

Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Sociey, said the increase in registrations was “highly encouraging” as millions of Britons are thought to be absent from the electoral register.

“We’re seeing a major uplift in new registrations compared to the last election, with large numbers of young people signing up too — a traditionally under-registered demographic,” she said.

There is no doubt that the parties see the significance of the politically-engaged Millennials. Labour has pledged to scrap tuition fees altogether as has the Green Party but the Conservatives have dropped a pledge first made by Theresa May to cut fees.

Theresa May said a voting age of 18 was "about right"
Theresa May said a voting age of 18 was "about right"

The Liberal Democrats meanwhile have yet to set out a position, perhaps scarred by the decision the party made when it went into coalition with the Conservatives to abandon its pledge to scrap them.

The potential of young voters to impact the results has been vividly illustrated by the international campaign over the climate emergency.

The campaign has evolved around protest marches organised by school children inspired by the teenager Greta Turnberg.

We should not be surprised that after 'youthquake' the Oxford English Dictionary has just announced that its word of the year is 'climate emergency'. A telling indicator, perhaps, of just how influential younger voters are set to be.

KMTV vox pop students ahead of the election


A push to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 has been given added momentum by the growing engagement of younger people in social and political issues.

Next year, 16 to 17 year olds will have the vote in council elections and Assembly elections in Wales. They also did in the Scottish referendum.

So, where do the parties stand on the issue?

Supporters of the idea point out that at 16, you can pay taxes, leave home, get married and even join the armed forces.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party back the idea but the Conservatives do not, arguing that it is at 18 that you are recognised as an adult and gain full citizenship rights.

So, clearly while the idea is gaining ground, it may be a while before it comes about - if at all.

Read more: What it's like to be able to vote for the first time

For more Kent 2019 General Election coverage click here.

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