A quick YouTube search will bring up videos of concerts taking place the UK during and immediately after the UK general election, in cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Cardiff, where choruses of “Woah Jeremy Corbyn” ring out from large swathes of people, the majority of whom look scarcely old enough to vote. This undoubtedly reached its crescendo at last weekend’s Glastonbury festival. Just as this juvenile vigour symbolises the support for Mr Corbyn among the young generation, so too does the 30-seat gain for Corbyn’s Labour party in the 2017 general election highlight the power that comes with mobilising the youth vote.
Why were Labour’s gains such a surprise?:
Political experts, politicians and academics across the board were predicting Labour’s demise in this election, along with the resultant nail in Jeremy Corbyn’s coffin as party leader. Some analysts forecast the party winning just 150-160 seats. Corbyn has been lambasted by members of his party in parliament and grossly vilified by the media almost since his election as leader two years ago. That Labour managed to win 262 seats in the House of Commons is therefore a startling outcome, and a huge surprise for many of those who predicted its obliteration in 2017.
Statistically, there is a strong correlation between areas with a high number of youth voters and increased Labour support in this election. In seats where the number of 18-24-year-olds was more than 10%, there was a 12.4% change in favour of Labour compared with the 2015 election. Key victories were largely attributed to young people, traditionally seen as an unreliable segment of the electorate in terms of voting, in constituencies in Leeds, Sheffield and Canterbury.
How did Corbyn swing the young voters?:
First and foremost, Labour made its gains through engaging in a specific targeting of certain voters in a way that the Tories simply didn’t. A dependable cohort of tech-savvy activists within the party managed to mobilise the young in a unique way; using a software system called Chatter, Labour’s young activists managed to find a way to communicate directly through text with the people they were canvassing at a local level, meaning they could listen to people’s individual concerns rather than bombard them with blanket, standardised campaign messages. They also developed an obscure tool called Promote, which allowed them to combine Labour voter data with Facebook details, allowing them to identify sections of the voting population and target them with specific messages relating to their community, such as stories about their local school in Mansfield, or their general hospital in Leeds.
The reasons for Labour’s youth success go beyond being just technologically adept, however. The party succeeded through an array of varied campaign tactics; Corbyn himself addressed over 100,000 people over the course of the campaign, from Warrington to Birmingham to Islington, reaching people in a way Theresa May and her Conservative Party seemed altogether disinclined or disinterested in doing. These old-school rallies were a way for Corbyn to engage with people, many of whom were young or first-time voters, up and down the UK, in a more expansive way which complemented his party’s more targeted technological campaigns.
Labour also relied on the support of Momentum, a campaign set up during Corbyn’s original bid for the Labour leadership, which helped train activists, sending them on sessions and to places where their work was most needed, such as constituencies with marginal seats (i.e. where the winner is normally elected by a small majority, and could go either way). Momentum was also able to galvanise the youth vote through a robust ‘get out the vote’ campaign, visiting schools and universities and signing up roughly 2,000 people to vote in the days prior to the election.
But it was not just the tireless efforts of Labour on the campaign trail which got young people out of their bedrooms and into polling stations. Corbyn’s unspun persona and perceived lack of ultra-professionalised gleam also clearly attracted support. Though his team is clearly dedicated and able, there is a real sense that Corbyn, when he speaks, does so from his own heart. His demeanour, political career and past hesitation over issues where his views clash with the official party stance (see Trident) give a sense that he genuinely believes whatever it is that he is campaigning for, and means what he is saying.
Both intentionally and inadvertently, Labour maximised the effect of enthusing the young voters through engagement in a way that the Conservatives didn’t. Where Ms May and the Tories clearly missed a trick, Corbyn and Labour mobilised the young people through a targeted campaign relying on technological skill, awareness of the problems affecting the UK youth generation, and old-school rallies to the masses.
How important is this youth vote?:
Ms May and her party’s failure to spot the potential for success through engaging young people is a mystery. Perhaps Tory voters, who on balance tended to be older, already knew which issues were important to them on a local level. Either that, or they were somehow taken with the Conservatives’ campaign of needlessly negative attack-style politics and vague nationalist message, or simply not compelled enough to change their mind. Whatever the case, Labour’s gains were undoubtedly due in part to their efforts to attract young voters, something which may have prevented Ms May losing her majority had she done the same.
Still, the youth impact on the 2017 general election should not be overstated. At the very least, it should be assessed with caution. Erroneous reports of a turnout of 73% among 18-24s were subsequently corrected; a YouGov poll put the figure at a more modest 57%. While this is an improvement on the 2015 election, at which youth turnout was just 43-44%, what remains an inescapable fact is that almost half of young people in the UK were not impassioned enough to vote in its most high-profile election. Indeed, young people remain the least likely to turn out to vote, and while the efforts of Labour and Mr Corbyn are a step in the right direction, more must be done to ensure young people engage with politics and are urged to come out and participate.
On another note, the assertion by some that Labour’s youth focus was done simply to coerce them into voting for their party (“it’s not just for making that cross: it’s for putting it in the right box”, as Joanna Williams articulated it in an online Huffington Post article) simply doesn’t stand up in my view. At least, not if one takes party politics for what they are, which is (or should be) a process of identifying which issues are important to certain groups and trying to improve those conditions. Pledging to scrap tuition fees has been in Labour’s manifesto since it was prematurely revealed publicly back in May. Costs of attending university are a considerable problem for those in the UK who want further education. Mr Corbyn and his party saw this, and homed in on this societal group as a way of gaining their approval and, ultimately, a lot of their votes. The assumption that this was a cynical form of electoral bribery on the part of Labour assumes that Mr Corbyn is simply a high-brow con artist who will say anything in order to get votes, with little faithfulness towards what he is actually fighting for. Anyone who knows him or is aware of his history as a politician knows that cannot be true.
Young blood: A lesson for Ireland and beyond:
Mr Corbyn’s campaign has received congratulations from across Labour’s upper echelons including Owen Smith, who stood against him in last year’s leadership contest. Labour’s gains in this election may make it difficult for some of his detractors to continue to question his leadership of the party, and may even rouse increased support from some of the parliamentary party members who have opposed him previously. All this is far from conclusive proof that Labour is permanently back on the rise in the UK; they still lost the election, after all. But mobilising youth and securing support from a generation normally more terminally passive than others in its attitude towards politics was a victory in itself; not just for Labour, but for politics as a whole. Just as Bernie Sanders acquired the adulation of many young Americans during last year’s US presidential election campaign, Corbyn has done the same across the pond. Whether that can be sustained or extended remains to be seen, but there is no doubting that shaking apathetic young voters into life, as Jeremy Corbyn has done so expertly, should be replicated by politicians around Europe, here in Ireland and beyond. With most European countries (Ireland included) falling below average in terms of youth turnout, Varadkar and co could learn a lot from Jeremy Corbyn’s youth push. And not just for its electoral benefit to Fine Gael, or to any one party for that matter, but for politics as a whole.