On 8 June, election day, my social media will be saturated. Facebook and Instagram will be a patchwork of standard images: memes imploring action, selfies captured en route to the polls, and pictures of polling station signs captioned ‘I voted’, with the green tick emoji. Some of my female friends will definitely share images of suffragettes (‘votes for women!’).
If I sound jaded, I’m a veteran. I’m also complicit: before last year’s EU referendum, I shared images of Wolfgang Tillmans’ stylised posters imploring the electorate to vote Remain on Instagram, and a picture of my friend pinning up an EU flag outside our house. Before the last general election, I uploaded a picture of the suffragette mother in Mary Poppins, and captioned it with a Union Jack and ‘sassy’ girl emojis.
I’m 26 and of my generation. For millennials, political engagement, like everything, is performative. But until recently the peppy posts and online jokes have belied an awkward reality. Take the EU referendum: in the aftermath, many of us felt that we’d been sold down the river by pensioners who wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout. Of those who went to the polls, 73 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted Remain, as did 62 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds; 60 per cent of those over 65 voted Leave. One of my friends left her grandmother’s house in an indignant huff one day soon after: she couldn’t bear the 74-year-old’s gloating. Another says she cringes every time she hears her grandparents talk about ‘the yoke of Europe’.
But according to market research company Opinium, just 64 per cent of the 18 to 24-year-olds who registered to vote actually did, rising to 65 per cent among 25 to 39-year-olds. Turnout for those aged 65 and over was 90 per cent. Some probably struggled to walk to the polling station. Stats from the 2015 general election tell a similar story: turnout was 43 per cent among 18 to 24-year-olds and 54 per cent among 25 to 34-year-olds, but 77 per cent for 55 to 64-year-olds and 78 per cent in the over 65s.
If ever there was a time for young Londoners to wake up, it’s now. Nearly a year on from the EU referendum, we’re facing another election. The results will arguably have further-reaching consequences than any in recent history. ‘Brexit will affect young people more than any other living generation,’ says Rhammel Afflick, a communications officer at the UK’s League of Young Voters. The next government must thrash out a new relationship with Europe, determining everything from the future of medical research to whether we’ll be able to make that dream to decamp to Berlin for a few years a reality. There are myriad other issues, too. Will our chances of home ownership improve? What about tax on freelance earnings? Between 2008 and 2015, there was a 51 per cent rise in the number of freelancers aged 16-29. Lowering the voting age is being debated. A poll by The Student Room found that if the country’s million and a half 16- and 17-year-olds had been allowed to vote in the EU referendum, 82 per cent of them would have voted to Remain, which could have changed the result. There is talk of abolishing tuition fees — education is back in the spotlight. And what shape will the future of the NHS take?
It’s time to forsake prejudice and overcome lazy assumptions. The party system is in flux and traditional tribal loyalties don’t necessarily hold, says Sophie Gaston, head of international projects at Demos: ‘The fundamental realignment that is taking place in British politics presents an opportunity to influence. This election represents the beginning of a new cycle.’ Labour has moved away from the centre ground; Theresa May is making strides into left-wing territory with promises, for example, to cap energy prices. The Lib Dems have gone from a fuzzy second choice to the party with the clearest pro-European voice (so far). It isn’t just about who walks into Number 10 (after all, polls suggest a May victory is all but inevitable). On 8 June, you are electing a local MP — and, whatever party, their voting record and promises will indicate how they interact with the government of the day.
General Election 2017 Campaign – In pictures
So do your research: the website They Work For You outlines your MP’s history on voting by topic, and Parliament.uk tells you whether they sit on any select committees, while a growing number of impassioned grassroots movements are promising pre-election enlightenment. My Life My Say is a national non-partisan youth group established by London students and politicians, which has been zipping up and down the country, holding ‘Democracy Cafés’ with speakers such as Nick Clegg and Gina Miller. ‘We’re not saying vote Conservative, vote Labour, we just want young people to turn up,’ says digital officer Yasmine El-Tourgman, 22. She estimates MLMS has reached ‘between 25,000 and 30,000 people’.
This is the point at which to get outside your intellectual safe space. Social media creates an echo chamber. Like me, you probably spend most of your time with people who vote the same way as you, and feel similarly about key subjects. Online, people will share articles that broadcast opinions with which they agree; everyone else they know will like them and drive them, via the wizardry of algorithm, up the newsfeed, making these opinions more visible. Perhaps a single dissenter will comment; they will be skewered. Indeed, a study of 2,000 Twitter users by think tank Demos found that politically engaged Twitter users tend to interact with those who share their views, and share articles that confirm their bias. It’s time to look for nuance. Log off and reconnect with old media, seek out tools — or create your own. Cambridge graduate Alice Thwaite, 27, founded weekly newsletter The Echo Chamber Club after last year’s referendum. She’d been thinking about filter bubbles for a while, and the fallout from the result catalysed the project. It is designed to ‘help those unfairly called the “metropolitan elite” to understand why others feel differently to them’.
Above all, remember to register to vote: the deadline is 22 May, or 23 May for postal votes. Sounds obvious? I’d have presumed so; then I realised, in the process of writing this article, that I hadn’t. Like many twentysomething Londoners, I’ve moved house four times in as many years, and there are probably polling cards addressed to me floating through letter boxes across the capital, but in order to receive one for the constituency I currently live in, I needed to register again. Even with the all-but-guaranteed May victory, and even if your MP’s seat is the safest in the country, marking your ballot isn’t just about this election. It’s an investment, says James Sloam, co-director of the Centre for European Politics at Royal Holloway University: ‘If young people do not vote, politicians will be likely to ignore their interests.’ Poor turnout disqualifies us as a demographic: politicians won’t feel compelled to create policies for us if they don’t fear us booting them out next time.
Finally, remember that our power to shape our future doesn’t begin and end with the election. Our digital savvy gives us an advantage. This year’s women’s marches held in cities across January started as small-scale Facebook groups: the London leg attracted 100,000. And the anti-Brexit march attended by tens of thousands in central London last July began as a Facebook event that gathered incredible pace. In the aftermath of Brexit last summer, 25-year-old Elspeth Hoskins co-founded #WeAreUndivided, a non-partisan coalition ‘who felt that there are issues that unite our generation beyond Leave/Remain, left or right’. Its website invites users to input a ‘demand’ they want to be considered during the government’s Europe negotiations. Users can then up- or down-vote suggestions.
We have proved our passion. Now we must use it at the ballot box. As Hoskins puts it, ‘Contrary to stereotypes and portrayals of young people as apathetic, our generation is forward-thinking, mature and articulate. Everyone cares.’