It is difficult to think of an election in which the votes of young people – age 18 to 25 – have caused more of a stir.
Of course, the youth vote was expected to be important in the EU referendum, the Scottish independence referendum and just about every general election since the voting age was lowered to 18. But in those cases it wasn’t decisive, usually because the difference between turnout among the young and that of their elders was too large.
This time, however, young voters’ overwhelming support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, their apparently being on the losing side of the EU referendum, and early signs that they voted in higher numbers than usual, made the youth vote one of the defining features of the 2017 election.
Even before all the votes had been counted, some were announcing there had been a “youth surge” which would deprive Theresa May of her majority. But there is actually no way of knowing exactly how many young people voted, because the Electoral Commission does not record the demographic characteristics of voters.
Instead, we have to rely on estimates from a range of imperfect sources, such as opinion polls or constituency profile analyses, which can produce quite variable results. At present, the youth turnout estimates for the 2017 general election range from 53% to 72%.
We at the WISERD Young People & Brexit project have conducted our own survey, and asked young people why they voted the way they did. Working with YouGov, we surveyed 5,095 British adults online between June 9-13, asking questions about their views of and responses to Brexit, and general election participation. The resulting figures were then weighted to be representative all British adults aged 18 and over.
The initial suggestion from our survey is that there was indeed an impressive youth turnout: an estimated 73% of under-25s reported voting in our survey.
At first glance, this is a remarkable figure. But given that this would put turnout of under-25s four points higher than that of the overall electorate – and is well above YouGov’s estimate of around 58% based on a much larger sample – it must be treated with scepticism.
Surveys are imperfect tools for estimating turnout, particularly because they tend to over-sample politically engaged young people, and respondents tend to say they voted even if they didn’t to avoid feeling judged. One of the most reliable surveys of political behaviour in Britain, the British Election Study (BES), has shown that there can be a difference of as much as 10 points between the self-reported turnout of under-25s and their actual participation.
What we can get from the 73% turnout figure, however, is an idea of how young people turned out compared with their elders and with previous elections.
The above chart, using data from the BES, shows that 58% of under-25s voted in 2015, 61% in 2010, and 48% in 2005. While our figure of 73% is certainly an over-estimate – and obtained from a survey using a different methodology from the BES – it nonetheless implies an increase in youth turnout in 2017, and a continuation of rising turnout since 2005.
It also shows that it was not just the under-25s who reported voting in higher numbers in the 2017 election. While the increase is larger among younger voters, turnout has increased across the electorate.
In addition, the graph shows that the gap between young and old remains significant: three-quarters of under-25s reported voting in our survey, but more than 80% of the over-40s did, although the gap between under-25s and 26-40-year-olds has disappeared.
What this all means is that we cannot attribute the increase in turnout between the 2015 and 2017 elections solely to a “youth surge”, though that looks to have been an important factor. And, despite the youth vote increase, we are a long way from seeing parity in the electoral participation of the youngest and oldest voters.
Any claim that this election was the “revenge of the young remainers” – of young people opposed to Brexit – is questionable.
Nearly two thirds (63%) of under-25s in our survey voted Labour; 20% voted Conservative. So more than four-fifths of the youth vote went to parties that support a hard Brexit – withdrawal from the EU, single market, and customs union. If the young were voting to stop or frustrate Brexit, they were making a very odd choice. Far more sensible would have been to support the Greens or Liberal Democrats who openly oppose Brexit. But the two parties collectively secured only around 10% of the under-25 vote.
Our survey also asked respondents whether they had voted to try and influence, support or prevent Brexit, and this appears to have been an objective for all voters. We found that 78% of those who reported voting said that they voted to influence Brexit in some way, while 84% of the young who voted did so to affect Brexit.
While young “leave” supporters were more likely to vote Conservative (44%) than Labour (42%), the majority of young voters were “remain” supporters who voted for the pro-Brexit Labour Party – 69% compared with 12% voting Conservative.
The most likely explanation for this apparent mismatch is that even though Labour and the Conservatives have similar objectives for Brexit, the differences in approach were enough to persuade many young remainers to back Labour as the only credible alternative government.
Another option is that while many young people were voting with the intention of influencing Brexit, it was secondary to other concerns. They may have voted for the party to support other policies, such as the abolition of tuition fees, or to ensure their preferences were not out-voted by their elders following their experience in the EU Referendum.
Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that the 2017 election was successful in mobilising young people to an extent not seen for at least two decades, and this is down, in no small part, to the issue of Brexit. While this youth surge was not the only reason for the increase in turnout – nor was it decisive in Labour’s election performance – it had a substantial impact on the result.
About the Young People and Brexit project
Young People and Brexit is an interdisciplinary study of how young people in the UK feel about and are responding to the UK’s exit from the European Union. Drawing on both existing and new research from throughout WISERD, and the expertise of a range of organisations with expertise and interest in youth political engagement (including Youth Cymru, the National Assembly for Wales and Members of the UK Parliament) the study will consider a range of issues such as the impact of Brexit on young people’s broader engagement with politics and civil society; the ways they are responding to and trying to influence Brexit through their political behaviour; the consequences of the EU Referendum for young people’s interest in and feelings about UK and devolved politics; the ways Brexit have forced young people to reconsider their understandings of citizenship and identity; and the impact of the EU Referendum and Brexit itself on inter-generational conflict in domestic politics.