Theresa May’s shock announcement of a general election to be held on June 8th (assuming Parliament approves) means that in just six weeks the country will once again be going to the polls to fight over the UK’s membership of the European Union. Other issues will no doubt feature in the election campaign – the NHS, the economy, schooling – but it will be Brexit that dominates and it is likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds as they decide who they want to form the next government.
A question already being considered in the media is: will the young make a difference? Younger voters backed remaining in the European Union by a margin of two to one in the referendum, and have subsequently had to watch as the government set out plans for a much looser relationship with the EU than they want. It seems possible, then, that angry young people who still feel betrayed by the referendum result could play an important role in June’s general election by voting for parties that will try to stop Brexit.
However, for those hoping such an eventuality will lead to a shock election result in which some kind of anti-Brexit majority can be formed, our advice is simple: don’t hold your breath. Young people tend to turn out in lower numbers than their more Eurosceptic elders – YouGov’s latest opinion poll (in the field 12/13th April) shows that only 39% of the under-25s were ‘certain’ to vote in an immediate general election, compared with two thirds of the over-50s.
This is not the first election thought to be dominated by issues that motivate young people. Recent examples include the EU Referendum, the 2015 election (when tuition fees were prominent) and the 2010 election (when the likelihood of a hung parliament meant everyone’s vote could be more influential), and in all three cases, even if the turnout of young people was unusually high (as in the EU Referendum), it lagged well behind that of their elders. Therefore, there is no reason to think that the 2017 election is going to be any different, or that young people will flock to the polling stations and buck the trend of the last fifty years.
There is also the issue of the opinion polls. Our recent blogs have considered how Brexit has affected the party preferences of younger voters. For some years, Labour have enjoyed a substantial poll lead among young people, one that has remained strong, and even grown, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. One might expect that this would change given Labour’s support for Brexit. We might have also expected the Conservatives to suffer, as they implement a far ‘harder’ Brexit than young people want to see, while at the same time the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to Brexit would mean that they pick up young voters alienated by the two major parties.
As Figure One shows, however, the opinion polls show no evidence of such a shift. The trend they reveal is one of stability. Labour has enjoyed a strong average lead of 13% over the Conservatives amongst the under-25s since the referendum. Tory youth support has remained stable and consistently lower, at an average of 16% (compared with Labour’s 28%), and the Lib Dems have been unable to improve on their stubbornly low figure of just 8%. There has been no lasting shift in youth support for either of the three major parties since the referendum, even when Article 50 was triggered in January.
It seems unlikely that younger voters’ hostility for Brexit is going to have a major impact on their party preferences over the next six weeks when it has had such a limited impact since the referendum itself. While some shifts in support between now and polling day are certainly likely as the campaign gets underway, the chances are that in the 2017 General Election, Labour will lead comfortably amongst the under-25s, followed by the Conservatives in second place.
Therefore, those expecting that the young will lead the way in producing a dramatic shock in this election, driven on by their passionate opposition to Brexit and the parties that support it, are likely to be disappointed. Instead it is highly likely that the pro-Brexit majority in the House of Commons will be substantially larger after 8th June than it is already.
Figure One: Under-25s’ Vote Intention, Jul 2016 – Apr 2017
This post was written by Dr Stuart Fox as part of the Young People and Brexit project. Stuart is a quantitative research associate based at WISERD, Cardiff University. Stuart can be contacted by email at FoxS8@cardiff.ac.uk or via Twitter on @stuarte5933.