Will other parties follow the (Labour) leader?

Today in Sheffield, Ed Miliband will draw attention to the ‘missing one million voters’ from the electoral role as a result of the shift from household to individual registration. It’s estimated that young people in particular make up a huge proportion of these missing voters, as they are no longer automatically bloc registered via colleges and universities.  Labour’s right to focus on the youth vote; the other parties ignore young people at their own peril.

In Demos’ recent report Tune In, Turn Out, we argued that local authorities urgently need to redouble voter registration drives in schools, colleges and universities to ensure that the changes to registration don’t undermine the youth vote. We also argued that third sector organisations need to beef up their efforts to use social media to mobilise voter turnout, and previously published a toolkit for third sector organisations on how they can make effective use of tools like Facebook advertising and Google Adwords to reach young people with voter registration drives. In the long run, reforms like same day registration are needed.

We shouldn’t panic about low registration – yet. With initiatives like Bite the Ballot’s National Voter Registration Day on the 5th February, as well as campaigns by VinspiredSky News, andBritish Youth Council and the League of Young Voters, and the Electoral Commission, among others, it’s likely that voter registration among young people will rise in the next few months. Still, Ed Miliband is right to draw attention to the issue, and appears to be prioritising the youth vote as a core component of their support in 2015.

This is the right move. Despite popular narratives about a lack of voting among young people, Demos research suggests high levels of intention to vote in 2015. In a recent survey of 18 to 25 year olds, we found that half of young people said they would vote in the election and a further 25 per cent said that they would probably vote. While the UK has the largest gap between younger and older voter turnout among OECD countries, our research suggests that the right mix of policies, presented in the right way, could lead to young voters having a significant impact on the outcome of the election.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Labour is focusing efforts on young voters. It’s typically thought that young voters lean towards the left. This was true for the 1997, 2001, and 2005 elections, however much less remarked upon, the percentages evened out between the three parties in 2010 – with 30 per cent of 18-24 year olds voting for Conservatives, 30 per cent for Lib Dems and 31 per cent for Labour.  Moreover, in 1987 and 1992, Labour had only a slight edge over the Tories in terms of the youth vote, and in 1983 42 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Conservative while only 33 per cent voted for Labour.

Recent research from Sky and Survation show that Labour does have a notable lead among young voters. In a representative sample of 18-24s, 35 per cent said they would vote Labour, followed by 12 per cent for the Conservatives, 12 per cent for UKIP, and only 3 per cent planning to register a vote for the Lib Dems – the same percentage that plans to vote for UKIP. Similar levels of support were seen in a recent British Futures report. Yet, importantly – the second most common answer from the Survation poll, after Labour, was 27 per cent saying they were undecided.

This mirrors our research in Tune In, Turn Out, where 44 per cent of youth voters said that they didn’t know who they would vote for. As the British Social Attitudes survey shows, younger generations are much less likely to feel strong affiliation towards a particular party. Parties can no longer take certain segments of the population for granted; they need to earn their votes, and these votes are still up for grabs.

The party that can offer positive policies on the issues that young people care about will reap the rewards on polling day. Our research suggests that the three most popular policies among young people were a jobs guarantee for those long-term unemployed, reducing the cost of tuition fees, and raising the national minimum wage for young people. These popular policies would more likely align with Labour’s proposals.

But the Conservatives should not despair: as much research has shown, including from Ipsos Mori and Demos, this generation of young people are more likely to prioritise individual responsibility over state assistance (49% think individuals should take more responsibility for themselves versus 39% who think that the state needs to take more responsibility), and to agree that the Government can’t afford to do much more to help the needy (45% compared to 39% who think that the government should do more even if it means going deeper into debt). Conservative messages on the need for austerity and to balance the budget could go down well with young voters.

Nor should the Lib Dems for that matter. It’s well known that youth support for the Lib Dems has plummeted in response to their U-turn on raising tuition fees. Indeed, many disillusioned young people cite the Lib Dems’ broken promise as the source of their disillusionment. Nonetheless, the fourth most popular policy among young people was better support for mental health provision – something that the Lib Dems have pledged to prioritise. Moreover, the fact that young people identify online privacy as one of their top concerns (more so than immigration, the EU, or crime) provides an opportunity for the Lib Dems to distinguish themselves from the other parties as the champions of online privacy.

University towns that the Lib Dems used to be able to rely on for substantial levels of support are now up for grabs. Miliband’s choice of location for today’s speech in Sheffield, not only one of the biggest student populations in the country, but a stone’s throw from Nick Clegg’s constituency is a smart one. But more still needs to be done to ensure that the policies young people care about are advertised through the mediums that young people use: bite-sized, shareable content that uses humour, infographics, and videos. The youth vote is not just Labour’s to lose, but every party’s to win. If the Conservatives and Lib Dems ignore the youth vote, they will pay for it in May.