Ignore the naysayers: the 2017 election youthquake wasn’t a myth | Liam Young


A study of Labour’s 2017 surge suggests there was no voting youthquake. But that flies in the face of other evidence




A young woman wears a Jeremy Corbyn sticker on her arm at Glastonbury festival.



‘In truth we can never be sure how many young people voted in 2017.’
Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

In the past, politicians have headed into elections with little on offer for young people. They calculated that because younger generations were unlikely to vote in large numbers, there was no need to address our concerns. The constant decline in turnout of young voters over the past decades confirmed this calculation, with politicians taking a full-throttle approach to inflicting the pain of austerity on the young since the 2008 crash. From the trebling of tuition fees to the continued inequality within the workplace – where an 18-year-old earns nearly a third less than a 25-year-old for the same minimum-wage job – the young have had it tough.

Labour’s surprise election result in 2017 changed all of that. Or so we thought. The team behind the British Election Study have now said that the largely reported “youthquake” (word of the year, don’t you know) was a “myth”. The study suggests that the turnout rate of 18-year-olds was lower in 2017 than in 2015. Though I do not doubt the integrity of the research, it is important that it is seen in the context of a wider picture. The study says that the “sample sizes for each comparison are quite small”, noting that, of the validated votes, just 109 18- to 24-year-olds were included, and that “small samples are likely to throw up difference in the wrong direction and of an exaggerated magnitude”. Given that, it seems impossible to simply accept that increased youth turnout is a myth, ignore other studies that differ in their findings, and the evidence of our own eyes: the surge of interest from the young in politics (which must surely include those between 25 and 32 as well), the Labour leadership ballots and the desperate attempts of Tories to tackle their youth problem.

I write in my book – Rise, coming out in March – that in truth we can never be sure how many young people voted in 2017. The secret ballot ensures that. We can only rely on polls, academic surveys and other evidence as an indicator of what happened. The British Election Study is the first survey to argue that there may have been a decrease in young turnout at the 2017 general election. Prof Thiemo Fetzer of the University of Warwick has argued that we saw “significant increases in turnout among the young”. The managing director of Ipsos Mori’s Social Research Institute stated quite clearly that the rise in youth turnout was a “big factor” in explaining Labour’s unexpected success. Polls released since the 2017 general election have also noted an increase in turnout among the young, with estimates ranging from an increase of 12 to 16 points. The voter registration drive prior to the election does not, of course, prove how many young people voted. It does however indicate the energy that surrounded that election, and we know that more young people than ever scrambled to claim their vote.

It will be interesting to see what Prof Michael Bruter of the London School of Economics makes of the headline report from this study. Bruter and his colleague Dr Sarah Harrison worked with Opinium in the aftermath of the EU referendum to show that turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds was “almost double” what had been reported when establishment figures rushed to rubbish the idea that my generation had turned out to vote in droves.

Commentators who latched on to the idea that Corbyn’s support among the young was down to tuition fee bribery or alleged broken promises on existing student debt have wielded these headlines as a weapon to discredit Labour’s election tactics, and dismiss the utility of appealing to younger voters. But even if we accept the results of the study, it demonstrates that Labour increased its share of the vote with all age groups except the over-70s.

The influence of young people should not be dismissed by attacks based on a single study. The power of the young is not a myth. The scrambling of the Tory party to address this very issue proves that my generation’s collective strength sends shivers down the spine of government. Whether you trust the surveys that predict tremors or the others that note a full-blown quake, one fact is undeniable: the young are engaged.

Liam Young is a writer and the author of Rise