Britain’s future rests on the shoulders of its supremely disillusioned young voters

Will they turn out?
Will they turn out?
Image: Reuters/Peter Nicholls
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The British polling industry has taken a beating in the last couple of years. It failed to predict the outcome of the 2015 general election, and didn’t call the referendum on Britain’s membership within the EU. And with a week to go till the UK snap election, the polling is all over the map.

The UK is heading to a hung parliament, according to one respected poll. Another suggests the Conservative Party is set to win with a healthy 15-point lead.

The discrepancies come down to one volatile factor in the British electorate—young people. Whether the Conservative government wins by a landslide, by a small majority, or it loses its majority in Parliament (a prospect that sent the pound tumbling) is dependent on youth turnout. In short, the future of the Britain is will be decided by its most disillusioned voters.

For young people in Britain, the last seven years have been grim. Tuition fees tripled; government grants to help the poorest attending universities were axed and replaced with loans with interest; under-25s lost their entitlement to housing benefits, while others were squeezed by a spiraling housing market; and job prospects have deteriorating “alarmingly,” according to Britain’s biggest trade union.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people have also voted less and less over the last twenty years. Youth turnout fell from 66% in 1992 to around 40% in the 2015 general election. Pollsters estimating turnout to be as low as 2015 are predicting a conservative landslide, while those banking on a bigger youth turnout are showing a tighter race.

One shock poll by YouGov predicts a hung parliament (where no party wins a majority), based on a turnout among voters under 25 of 51%. With turnout among voters aged 65+ estimated to be 75%, YouGov estimates the turnout gap to be 24 points between young and old, a narrowing of the gap since 2015.

YouGov’s expectation of higher youth turnout than the 2015 election is plausible. In the 2010 general election there was a turnout gap of 23 points between young and old. And last year 64% of voters aged 18-24 went to polls to vote in the referendum on whether to leave the European Union. (That’s twice as high as originally thought.) Burned by the result of the Brexit referendum, young people have registered in droves for this election.

Higher youth turnout is expected to benefit the Labour Party, which took a hard left turn in recent years. Indeed, if the election were held only among voters under the age of 50, Corbyn could beat May. That’s partly because the party has made considerable effort to reach out to young people. In its bold manifesto, Labour promises to abolish tuition fees, ban unpaid internships, raise minimum wage to “at least £10 per hour by 2020,” and cap rents so they would only rise with inflation. There are even hints of plans to wipe out some student debt.

The leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn, has also gotten ringing endorsements from an unlikely source; The British rap scene known as grime. Popular rappers including Jme, Professor Green, Akala, and Novelist called upon their largely young, urban supporters to register to vote and back Corbyn in the upcoming snap election. In the middle of the campaign, the grassroots campaign “grime4corbyn” started up, promising a secret grime show for anyone registering to vote.

This all bodes well for Corbyn, but as one Conservative MP put it: “Under-30s love Corbyn but they don’t care enough to get off their lazy arses to vote for him!” Youth turnout failed to materialize for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and Ed Miliband (then the leader of the Labour Party) in 2015. For now, it’s hard to tell whether the excitement around Corbyn will result in a significant turnout at the polls.

This upcoming snap election gives young people an opportunity to strike back after Brexit. While they can’t swing the election in Labour’s favor (that would require more young people than are alive in the UK right now), they could potentially take a significant bite out of May’s majority.