Editor’s Note: Abby Tomlinson is an 18-year-old student, member of the Labour Party and political activist. She is known for her part in the “Milifandom” campaign during the UK general election in 2015. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
Abby Tomlinson: Britain's political atmosphere ignores the young
Tomlinson: Youth turnout will go up once schools do more to politically educate young people
Before the UK voted to Brexit, it was suggested that the turnout of young people could decide the result. If the youth rocked the vote, the logic went, Remain would win.
The official “Stronger In” campaign made an effort to engage young people using the patronizing “#votin” hashtag. The creator of this slogan felt that the omission of the “g” would mean it would appeal to young voters. This obviously failed.
The British media says areas with younger populations tended to have a lower turnout on referendum day. There is little conclusive proof that younger people were less likely to vote than older people, but it’s not hard to see why that might be true.
There are several reasons. The first is the lack of political education. Many young people leave high school with only basic political knowledge. “We just know Labour is red, Tories are blue, and Liberal Democrats are yellow,” as my 14-year-old sister put it. Nothing is really done to encourage an interest in politics, and unless people personally take it upon themselves to get involved, this often leads to many not caring and – when they turn 18 – not voting.
When young people don’t vote, politicians ignore them in their policies. It’s a cycle that creates more disillusioned young people who don’t vote, which means politicians ignore them even more.
Many of my friends who couldn’t be persuaded to vote in the referendum didn’t think politicians or politics in general did anything for them and they didn’t see why the EU referendum would be any different. When there is a political atmosphere that mostly ignores the young, they mistakenly believe that the result will ignore them too.
If we judged youth engagement by social media posts instead of voter turnout, it would seem young people were interested in the referendum. Facebook and Twitter were rife with young people engaging with the referendum, and – on Friday – expressing their anger with the result. Many young people felt betrayed – not, interestingly, by the other young people that didn’t vote, but by the country’s older generations.
Of the 18-24 year olds that turned out, a YouGov poll suggests 75% voted Remain. Just 39% of voters over 65 did. These statistics are infuriating for many young people. They show that those who have to live with the consequences of the result for the shortest amount of time decided the future of those it affected most. The animosity between the generations certainly seems to have increased post-referendum.
A pro-Remain rally in Westminster on Tuesday night was flooded with young people pushing back at what they see as a betrayal of their progressive European values.
The young people talking about the referendum on Facebook, Twitter, and at protests are the engaged ones – they’re the ones who got out and voted. Among my friends and acquaintances, those who don’t vote don’t talk about the referendum on social media. The judgment of youth engagement based on social media and protest attendance – suggesting that a lot are engaged but didn’t vote – is a distortion.
Ultimately though, poor turnout among young people in this referendum is not the fault of the Remain campaign. Whatever they had done, it’s unlikely it would have increased turnout, nor was it down to specific disinterest in the referendum itself or the arguments being debated.
Yes, a portion of the blame should go to those young people who simply did not care enough to vote, but more importantly, blame also needs to be apportioned to the lack of political education in schools and the fact that so many politicians routinely ignore young people or target them ineffectively – and then expect them to turn out to support their causes at key moments. A lot of the time when young people do have an opinion, they are told that their opinion is invalid precisely because they are young.
Would the result have been different if the majority of young people had turned up to vote? Perhaps. But is there anything that could have been done to make this happen? Sadly, because of the current political approach to young voters, probably not.