Young people of Britain do not fret, Brian May is reppin’ you. The 69-year-old guitarist and badger enthusiast last week tweeted a picture with the words: “Make them represent the ends. This is our time, these are our streets, come we rize up.”
May was supporting the launch of #RizeUpUK, a new campaign aimed at young voters that was co-founded by photographer Josh Cole and film-maker Jane Powell. They have created a call-to-arms, littered with hashtags and yoof slang, to be shared on social media. The campaign’s other vehement supporters include UB40, Steel Pulse, the rapper Doc Brown and branches of Lush Cosmetics.
This is all to be expected. There have been so many major elections in this country recently that we have got to know their structure and rhythms, like an old married couple having the same argument for years. The campaign buses and lectern slogans have been revealed, and voter registration will close on Monday, so a well-meaning but patronising campaign to get young people to vote is right on time.
Back in 2015, Sky News launched a youth-vote initiative called Stand Up Be Counted, perhaps unaware that it is also the name of a widely panned play by Jim Davidson and an anthem of the KKK. During the EU referendum, the Stronger In campaign launched its #Votin campaign video, which showed young people doing hip activities such as graffitiing and skydiving while the words “Ravin”, “Sharin”, “Chattin” and “Votin” flashed up on the screen like a Robin Thicke video.
We know what’s coming next, too: “youth debates” on Radio 1; there will be the claim that this will be the first social media election (just like the last five) and then, as polling day nears, tentative predictions that young people could decide this outcome.
Finally, of course, the result: which, again, we already know. As with the AV, Scottish independence and EU referendums and the 2010 and 2015 general elections, young people will vote overwhelmingly one way, as the rest of the country votes the other.
This, we are told, is because 18- to 24-year-olds don’t turn out in big enough numbers. All the “vote 4 me bruv” campaigning is entirely ineffective. Between 1992 and 2005, youth turnout at UK general elections declined by 28%, and has hovered around the 40% mark ever since. In local and European elections, youth turnout has been less than 20%, the lowest among the longest-standing 15 members of the EU.
There is one ray of hope for the young. Michael Bruter, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, revealed last year that youth turnout in the EU referendum was almost double the 36% that was initially reported using incorrect data. Indeed, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in that election was higher than in any vote in recent memory.
Bruter is an important figure in the attempt to increase youth participation. His research involves huge multi-wave, multi-year, multi-mode surveys, as well as in-depth interviews, lab work and controlled experiments in democracies around the world, to try to work out what would get young people voting in the sorts of numbers they did in the 60s and 70s.
He says the EU referendum bucked the trend because, while young people tend to be suspicious of elites and politicians, “they find it easier to get passionate about an issue than they do about a party”. The problem is exacerbated in general elections because the main political parties are often not even interested in courting the youth vote. “There’s little to motivate parties to make changes. It makes more sense for them to address the concerns of old voters rather than younger ones, who they consider not to vote in sufficient numbers. So young people feel like the political parties don’t talk to them and as a result they vote less. It’s a very bad vicious circle.”
This problem of youth abstention is often portrayed as a problem of communication. If only the parties used some more hashtags and some photo opportunities with grime stars (a tactic deployed by Jeremy Corbyn this week), the young would come out and vote. “All the parties think the problem is that their message is not heard by young people. This is completely the wrong way of looking at things,” says Bruter. “The problem is a problem of substance, not communication.” Young people fully understand what the parties are offering, and are rejecting it.
This is a more serious problem than we currently realise, he says. It is not just that young people are apathetic while they are young, but that society is creating generations of people who may never vote. “If young people don’t vote for the first election of their lives, they’re not likely to vote in later elections either,” says Bruter. “They will be lost for good. If you give young people the impression that voting is not an effective way of channelling their frustration, then that frustration only increases and they feel that the policies are neither legitimate nor things that they need to obey. That is a very serious problem for democracy.”
Britain is not alone in facing this crisis: youth turnout across western democracies tends to be low, but there are a number of important exceptions we can learn from.
One guarantee of higher turnout is an election where the stakes are perceived to be high: a meaningful change is on the ballot. Sometimes this happens because of a perceived threat, normally a far-right candidate: young people voted in high numbers in the second round of the French presidential election in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen was running, and in this year’s Dutch election when anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders seemed to be in with a chance. But the stakes can also be raised by politicians projecting a grand vision to voters. “When you talk to political parties about addressing young voters, the first thing that comes to mind is maybe we should lower university tuition fees and increase housing,” says Bruter. “They try to give them freebies, or make their personal situation better. But voters in general are much more likely to vote for what they think is best for the country rather than what they think is best for themselves. It’s about big ideas.”
Both Obama’s historic presidential bid in 2008, and the 2015 Canadian federal election, in which Justin Trudeau became Canadian prime minister, projected a positive political narrative about the future, and inspired higher-than-usual youth turnout. But the most unlikely upsurge of youth interest came in the 2016 US primary candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who commanded as much as 80% of the youth vote in some states, and ensured, for the first time, that millennial voters formed as large a voting block as baby boomers.
“Younger voters were looking for someone who wasn’t afraid to talk about bigger ideas,” says Keegan Goudiss, a partner at Revolution Messaging who served as director of digital advertising for the Bernie 2016 campaign. “In the Democratic party we’ve had a problem where everyone keeps levering down the message to not scare off moderates or older voters, and Bernie said: ‘I’m not going to change what I’m saying, I’m not going to water down my message.’” Sanders’ broad themes of rising inequality in the US and the dangers of climate change turned his largely tokenistic primary run into a huge youth movement.
Once you have a message that resonates with voters, you need to get it out there. Here, many parties believe they have found the panacea, “micro-targeting”. Social networks such as Facebook let you directly reach young voters, creating bespoke adverts that will only be seen by them. Both Labour and the Conservatives are spending millions on this, but Goudiss is not impressed by their attempts. “It’s a big mistake. If you’re only targeting the 20% of people who like your message you’re not inspiring the other 80%. What Bernie did differently was reach people on Facebook who, say, care about healthcare – that’s a much bigger audience – and talk to them. Don’t worry about if they’re a certain demographic, if they’re registered to vote, if they’ve donated. Let’s talk to them about a big idea that people care about.”
Indeed, much of what the Sanders campaign did went against social media orthodoxy: that posts have to be super-short and super-memorable. At the senator’s behest, the campaign team made eight-minute social media videos, sent 2,500-word campaign emails, and filmed long, direct-to-camera speeches that were shared millions of times. They didn’t try to hide Sanders’ age; rather, they poked fun at it, with a cartoon Bernie appearing on dedicated Snapchat filters, only accessible at rallies, which were extremely popular with supporters under 24. They launched Artists for Bernie, an organisation for musicians and artists to get involved in the campaign, not just with photo-ops, but thoughtful engagement and combined concert-rallies. In the space of six months, Bernie went from polling at 3% to beating Clinton in a number of important primary states, and coming close to being the Democratic nominee.
In Argentina, voting is compulsory, so the problem is not turnout but disillusion with politicians. By the 1990s, corruption was so high and trust in politicians so low that even the word “política” was pejorative. There were even issues with people voting at random or for whoever was at the top of the ballot. So, at the start of the 2000s, groups and parties that supported the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner formed a coalition, now called Unidos y Organizados (United and Organised). It was a campaign group, not dissimilar to the Stop the War coalition, but it also did community outreach. Martina Rodriguez, who has been involved in the organisation since she was 15, tells me how they visited shanty towns across the country, read books with children, held breakfast clubs, and offered support and advice to local communities. They did all the things a charity would do, but they were there on behalf of the state.
The difference is a subtle one, but it has a big impact: imagine going to the jobcentre and finding the person at the centre was wearing a Labour T-shirt and telling you about what Labour policies could do for you. Over a decade, the supporters of President Kirchner built a movement of millions. Similar tactics have been used by the radical left party Syriza in Greece, which was involved in setting up health clinics, markets for fresh produce and educational classes. People start to see public services and politics as entirely intertwined, and politics as much bigger than parliament. Corbyn’s plan for a huge Labour movement that is bigger than the political party perhaps has the potential to do something similar.
If this all sounds like statist propaganda, it is. “Yes, the opposition said it was biased, that we were recruiting our own supporters,” says Rodriguez. “There was obviously a sense of propaganda in everything we did. But it was needed. People fell in love with this project, it changed their lives – it let them go to university. That’s not buying their support.”
During that time, many people in Argentina had moved from abject poverty to the middle class, but, Rodriguez says, unlike previous generations they thanked central government for this. Politicians were viewed as heroes.
The results of this shift are most visible in Argentinian secondary schools, which have “extremely active” unions and political parties. “Students know everything about every party and every policy; even nine-year-olds have political opinions,” says Sarah Raphael, who taught primary and secondary school classes in Buenos Aires. “There’s a protest in the street literally every weekend – all the children know everything.”
The culmination of this engagement of the young was the lowering of the voting age in Argentina from 18 to 16. “I was in congress the day the law was passed,” says Rodriguez. “It was unbelievable. The gallery was filled with young people singing and chanting. It was so amazing.”
Voting at 16 is more than just a way of inspiring young people, however. According to Bruter’s research, it could transform youth participation in democracy, for mainly boring practical reasons. For most young people, their first opportunity to vote comes between the ages of 18 and 20, when they are likely to be downing pints in a student union bar or in Thailand on a gap year. Even if they re-register at a new address, they are unlikely to know the candidates or the local issues. “But when you are 16, you live in a place where you are likely to have grown up, you typically live with your parents, and you typically go to school, so you are socialised in an environment where you are aware of the state and aware of the election,” Bruter says. The Scottish referendum was the first UK vote in which the voting age was lowered to 16. Estimates suggest 75% of 16- to 18-year-olds turned out, compared with 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds.
There is another crucial change that Bruter has trialled at elections in more than six countries, with excellent results: make voting for the first time as important as other adolescent firsts, such as getting your driving licence, or losing your virginity. Bruter says that getting young people excited about voting for the first time has far more of an impact than guilting them into it. In studies, Bruter and his team have tried more than 30 different ways to make first-time voting more of a ceremony, from receiving an official notification by letter inviting you to vote “for the first time in your life”, to dedicated polling stations and “happy hours” solely for first-time voters. All have been shown to improve voter turnout.
What with young people constantly glued to their phones, you might think that electronic voting could make a difference, too. Indeed, it is currently being considered for the next UK general election. But Bruter’s research shows that people who e-vote are less satisfied with the experience than people who go to a polling station; experiments with 15-17 year olds in six different countries found internet voting was counter-productive.
The sobering truth is that the current UK election has almost none of the conditions that would engender a change. The stakes are extremely low, because everyone already believes their vote won’t make a difference. The voting age is still 18, and the election is in June, when many students will have left university and may be away or at a festival. This week, the Electoral Reform Society reported that the number of school leavers on the electoral roll has dropped by more than a quarter in three years. Most damningly, no party is articulating a big idea about the future of Britain; a message of citizenship, hope or change. All are focusing on transactional policies, trying to woo young people with free tuition fees or legalising cannabis. Even Labour, with its radical Berniesque leader, can struggle to imagine the future, offering piecemeal offerings such as “more bobbies on the beat” in television and radio interviews.
Yet there is still much to be hopeful about. All the main opposition parties support votes for 16- to 18-year-olds. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the sort of candidate, the sort of campaign, that could spark wild enthusiasm from young people. Perhaps Corbyn could even be that candidate if he could be persuaded to give up on the focus-tested giveaways and think more about the broad vision he wants to communicate to young voters. There were hints of that broader vision at the Labour manifesto launch this week, with the leader calling the document “a draft for a better future”. That is certainly more galvanising than Brian May tweeting as if he has got a bit part on Top Boy.