When Jeremy Corbyn formally entered the Labour leadership contest in June, nobody expected him to even be competitive – let alone secure almost 60% of the vote in the first round. That Corbyn won so convincingly, and after eliciting the greatest surge in people joining or registering to support the Labour party for decades, is an astonishing achievement. One of the claims regularly made about why Corbyn was so successful is that he was singularly able to appeal to ‘idealistic young people’ and the ‘disenfranchised youth of today’. Corbyn himself suggested in his victory speech that disengaged young people, written off as a ‘non-political generation’ by political parties, were drawn into his campaign by the promise of a new, more inclusive style of politics.
Leaving aside the questionable logic behind the view that someone who is part of the 0.5% of the electorate that participates in a party leadership election could be described as politically disengaged, not to mention the growing evidence that today’s young people are, in fact, not a politically alienated generation at all, the latest survey data does not lend much support to the theory that Corbyn is re-engaging the disengaged youth. Polling by YouGov conducted at the end of the leadership election shows that roughly 5% of Labour’s selectorate aged under-25 did not vote in the 2015 election. While this is still higher than the 2-3% of over-25s, the fact that 95% of under-25s who took part in the leadership election voted in 2015 casts considerable doubt on the claim that they are politically disengaged. In addition, of all those who supported Corbyn, only 3% did not vote in 2015. This compares with 2% of Liz Kendall’s supporters, and 1% of those backing Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper. The vast majority of Corbyn’s support, like that of the other candidates, came from people who are politically engaged and voted in the general election.
While Corbyn and his supporters are wrong to claim that he has managed to engage the unengaged young, it is worth noting that his critics are also wrong to claim that he has won the election thanks to an ‘adolescent takeover’, and the naivety of people too young to remember the 1980s. While the under-25 Labour members/supporters are passionate backers of Corbyn, they are not unusual; 64% of under-25s voted for him, compared with 67% of 25-39 year olds, 60% of 40-59 year olds, and 51% of the over 60s. Corbyn won a majority of support in every age group of voters in Labour’s s electorate.
Corbyn’s young supporters are not the disengaged, alienated youths looking for a new way of ‘doing politics’ to draw them back into the fold described by Corbyn himself. Nor are they a distinct, uninformed and naive wing of the Labour party whose inability to remember the 1980s makes them singularly passionate in their support for him. Corbyn’s young supporters are politically engaged voters, within the mainstream thinking of Labour’s current membership (if not that of the Parliamentary Labour Party). The only thing that is unusual about them, and which they share with the older members of Labour’s selectorate, is that they participated in the contest at all.
About the author: Dr Stuart Fox is a Quantitative Research Associate at WISERD, based at Cardiff University. He provides quantitative research expertise and support to projects throughout the Civil Society Research Centre. He also develops links between those projects and works with colleagues to exploit new research opportunities from the overlap between the Centre’s extensive research portfolio. He completed his PhD in Politics at the University of Nottingham, where he studied the political apathy and alienation of young people in Britain and the effect of each on their political and civic participation.