Youth turnout: the new wisdom


In the cacophony of post-election analysis, one narrative has stood out: it appears the youth turnout rate surged. We do not yet have reliable data to confirm this, but assuming the early estimates are correct (some of which say that turnout for 18-24 year olds was as high as 72%), what could this mean for British politics? Here are four implications of a surge in young people voting:

  1. A higher youth turnout rate could be here to stay.

There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, voting is habit-forming. An individual voting in one election significantly increases the likelihood of them voting again in the future. Evidence suggests that the relationship is not just a matter of correlation, but causation – it is the act of voting itself which is significant in causing people to vote again, rather than other factors such as the person’s social grade.[1] The psychological mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon are unknown.

Secondly, now young people have made their voices heard once, political parties are more likely to devise policies that appeal to them in order to win their votes. This in turn makes it more likely that young people will vote again, as they feel that their interests are being represented. It’s a virtuous circle – participation leads to representation which leads to participation, and so on. This is supported by our findings from Tune in Turn Out, Demos research published six months ahead of the 2015 election, which found that a key reason behind some young people being disengaged was the perception that politicians only cared about groups who traditionally voted, such as older voters.[2]

  1. Policy areas of interest to young people may rise up the agenda.

An implication of the point above is that issues of interest to young people may rise up the political agenda. Of course, Brexit almost certainly played its part in bringing out the youth vote, and their voices may be one factor that forces May to reconsider the wisdom of a hard Brexit. But the election was about much more than Brexit. In 2014 Demos found that the top three policies for young people that would make them more likely to vote were guaranteed jobs for long-term unemployed young people, reducing the cost of higher education, and raising the national minimum wage.[3] It is perhaps no coincidence that young people appear to have come out to support Labour, who promised to raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 2020, reinstate maintenance grants and abolish tuition fees – measures described as attempts to “bribe millennials”.[4] Conservatives also promised to raise the minimum wage but only to £8.75 an hour by 2020, and made no commitments in relation to the cost of higher education. In future elections we may see more promises made by all the parties with respect to the cost of higher education and minimum wage level.

  1. The pre-election campaign could now be more important.

An old rule in political science is that election campaigns have a limited effect in determining how people will vote. According to the rule, only a very small group of people are open to persuasion as campaigns reach their peak – most people have their voting preferences fixed very early into the electoral cycle. However, one of the groups least likely to have their preferences fixed in advance are young people. According to the Ashcroft polls, 64% of 18-24 year olds only decided which way to vote during the month before Thursday’s election, and 39% made their mind up within the last week. In contrast, just 41% of people aged 65 or over made their minds up in the last month and 25% in the last week. As young people’s votes stay up for grabs longer, they are more sensitive to the highs and lows of the campaign period.

  1. The way parties use social media will also be more important.

It has become increasingly obvious in recent years that in winning the votes of young people, social media is a vital new political battleground. In Like, Share, Vote Demos made a powerful case for using social media to get out the vote.[5] Furthermore, in Tune in, Turn Out we found that young people would be more likely to vote if politicians were more effective on social media, and if they knew that their friends and families were voting via social media.[6] Yet parties are only just catching up.

Analysis has shown that the Conservative Facebook strategy in this election rested on hyper-targeting: the use of paid-for adverts which were often critical in tone, and targeted directly at voters in marginal constituencies.[7] In contrast, Labour’s strategy has been described as “organic” – rather than paid-for content, it largely relied on content made by dedicated supporters, such as videos, graphics and tools including My Nearest Marginal.[8] Supporters shared this content themselves, for friends and family to see – exactly what young people in our research said would make them vote. The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos is continuing to look closely at the role of social media in last week’s election and its aftermath.

In 2014 Demos argued that the potential for young people to turn out en masse was there. We challenged parties to realise this potential and reap the rewards – but they didn’t. 2017 has shown that you ignore the youth vote at your peril. Policymakers and electoral campaigners now face a steep learning curve in adjusting their approach so that young people are engaged in the right way, at the right time.