They sorely underestimated us. They didn’t think we’d register but 714,595 under-25s signed up to vote between 18th April and 20th May. They didn’t try to engage us, so we engaged ourselves and our peers. They didn’t think we’d turn up, but an estimated 72% of us voted. We used our voice, causing one of the most unprecedented results in decades: we should be proud.
Historically, young people haven’t voted. Politicians and older people alike have said it’s because we’re lazy. One unnamed Conservative MP told the Huffington Post’s Owen Bennett just last month that “under-30s love Corbyn but they don’t care enough to get off their lazy arses to vote for him!”
Party policies aren’t aimed at us because they don’t expect us to turn up, and we don’t turn up because we see no one representing us. It’s a vicious cycle that the Electoral Reform Society deemed a “voter registration time bomb” thanks to school-leaver registration dropping by more than a quarter in three years. In 2005, 75% of the over-65s voted, in contrast to only 37% of 18-24s. Relying on an older vote, the pale, stale, male face of Westminster hasn’t appealed to young people around the UK. Until now.
I am 24 and this is the first time I have voted with unadulterated pride. For the first time in my life I see a principled man who resembles a human being, rather than a robotic member of the elite spewing soundbites at us through the TV. Jeremy Corbyn shares the values young people hold dear – wealth distribution, anti-war, a free NHS, a fair job market, scrapped tuition fees – and has encouraged these values for over 40 years. His political career (though he’s no careerist) began in grassroots activism, and he has a reputation in parliament for being a backbench rebel: he doesn’t fit the mould we’re all so tired of seeing.
Sophie Slater, the cofounder of ethical clothing site Birdsong, is 25 and campaigned and voted for Labour. “For the first time we have someone representing us who is anti-imperialist, fundamentally transparent, and isn’t corrupt – these are all values that my friends, colleagues and young people I work with have,” she tells me. “For years now we’ve been told that all of our activism takes place in an echo chamber – I feel like this is generational gaslighting of the highest order. Ironically, I think young people have far more diverse social groups as a result of austerity and the digital age, and therefore have more political empathy and human insight than the older, ruling class. We’ve been fighting for the same issues that Corbyn represents for a long time, which is why they’re so appealing.”
Young people care deeply about politics, but are tired of the status quo. We are seeing a generation that has been politicised by Brexit – and who realise that it is urgent and important for them to take action.
Emily Vickers, RECLAIM
Echoing this sentiment is Emily Vickers, a Strategic Manager at RECLAIM, a non-party political Manchester-based youth leadership and social change charity. Supporting working-class young people aged 12-22, the charity helps them recognise their own power as disruptive leaders capable of changing society for the better. “Young people care deeply about politics, but are tired of the status quo. We are seeing a generation that has been politicised by Brexit – and who realise that it is urgent and important for them to take action.”
The charity has been working with Team Future, a group specifically created to build the power and voice of young people in political debate. Emily explains that in the lead-up to the election, there were clear strategies to engage the under-18s: “The group developed a manifesto for politicians, based on a survey they had carried out with over 4,000 young people around Greater Manchester. It asked which behaviours and values they’d like to see displayed by UK politicians in the election and beyond. Across all groups, 'honesty' was the number one answer – which I think says a lot about young people’s feelings about the integrity of the mainstream politics. This was followed by representation: so many young people just hadn’t seen their communities reflected in the politicians they were hearing about. They’ve been desperate for this election to change things for the better.”
if u stay up late on election eve, you might catch a glimpse of santa arriving with a big bag of cans for the lads pic.twitter.com/85KhsUp7DW— The Absolute Goose (@SuzeMarsupial) June 7, 2017
So while pockets of young activists had been tirelessly campaigning in the lead-up to this week’s election, how can we trace the mass turnout of young voters who were previously unengaged? Do not underestimate the reach of social media. According to The Independent, in the weeks leading up to the registration deadline, Labour was encouraging young people to sign up in over one third of their social media posts, with over a quarter on Corbyn’s personal social platforms. The Conservatives? The last time they used Facebook to encourage people to vote was April 2016. Corbyn’s relatable charisma leant itself well to the internet, with phrases like ‘absolute boy’ and ‘a big bag of cans for the lads’, and memes of Corbyn becoming declarations of the left-wing on Twitter and Instagram. While this may sound trivial, tapping into the digital world of young people certainly played its part in the result.
And then, of course, there was grime. With artists like Stormzy and Akala educating their followers and fans about the tricky nature of the political system, they encouraged a previously ridiculed and patronised age group to remind the elites that they should and would be heard. The catalyst was JME’s chat with Corbyn for i-D. Not only was someone young people admire breaking down a system rigged against them, but a politician was taking the time to sit and chat with someone like them. “What I’ve seen of him seems so genuine,” JME says before they sit down, "I feel like I’m going to meet one of my mum’s friends.” When other politicians duck questions, repeat catchphrases (see Theresa May’s interview in The Plymouth Herald), and make pitstop visits to towns just for the press shot, a leader like Corbyn sparks action and ignites passion.
So, with a terrifying coalition between the Tories and the DUP on the cards, how do we feel about the future? Speaking to Emily, I personally feel hopeful: “We’ve had messages coming in from across Team Future expressing excitement and hope at what the huge youth turnout in this election means for the future of politics – and particularly for the role of youth within it,” she tells me. “I think this result and the amount of publicity around it has really reinforced young people’s determination to influence decision-makers and become active agents in the fight for a better society.”
A warning to detached politicians and older generations: if you didn’t see us before, you certainly do now.
When a tweet circulated yesterday saying, “Senior Labour figure: 'I am gobsmacked. What is happening?'” Labour campaigner Edith Miller summed up how a lot of us feel: “Better start having some faith in us pretty quickly, because we’re the future of your party and this country.” She's a 25-year-old master's student from Colchester, and didn't vote in the 2015 election. This time, she voted Labour because "this is an amazing opportunity to build a truly left-wing Labour party to oppose the Tories' austerity agenda which has harmed so many people in the last seven years. Also, crucially, Jezza is the absolute boy."
When she was out on the streets every day "canvassing, leafleting and organising locally", why does she think people are shocked at our political turnout? "They had no faith in us, but that was largely because their political imagination is so lacking. They think because we didn't turn out in 2015 that meant we didn't care or couldn't be engaged in politics, when the reality was we weren't being offered anything other than soundbites. My local Labour party has not only seen a massive increase in young voters, young people also made up a huge chunk of the volunteers out on the streets working to re-engage older people with the party and with voting, too – it works both ways!"
This is just the beginning. We are fired up, and know how powerful our vote can be. A warning to detached politicians and older generations: if you didn’t see us before, you certainly do now.