By Amy Callaghan
In the UK’s general election on the 8th of June, the exit polls predicted a shock result which was irreconcilable with the state of British politics when Theresa May called the election on the 18th of April. At that time, the Tories were expected to at the very least hold on to, and indeed likely substantially increase, their parliamentary majority, giving Theresa May a greater mandate and aiding her legitimacy in Brexit negotiations. The Labour Party awaited decimation. However, the exit polls predicted a hung Parliament, and as the night went on, it became increasingly clear that the Conservative party could not expect to form a majority government this time around. At the time of writing, the Conservatives hold 318 seats, losing 12, and Labour hold 261 seats, gaining 29. The reason for this transformation in the political landscape bringing about an unexpected victory for the political left? Young voter turnout.
72% is the estimated turnout figure for voters aged 18-24 (although the veracity of this figure and other turnout figures is unlikely to be confirmed for around a week), a massive increase on the estimated 43% turnout in the last general election, and higher even than their turnout at the EU referendum, which was around 64%. This huge upswing in engagement among young voters marks a significant shift in establishment politics, which relies more heavily than they will admit on apathetic young voters – in fact, the Sun ran a feature online on the day of the election this year on how to actively prevent young people from voting. While the piece is obviously writing in a joking tone, the message is nothing short of repellent – claiming that young people will ‘do the wrong thing’ at the polls as though their views on their future matter less than the accepted and established Conservative perspective more favoured by older voters.
The Conservative party themselves did not do much to engage young voters, particularly in comparison with the Labour party. While the Labour party encouraged young people to register to vote and then get out and vote consistently throughout their campaign, the Tories did not use social media to encourage voter registration at all during theirs. This is evidently a deliberate lack of engagement with young voters, as the Conservatives are aware that young voters tend to lean much more towards progressive parties and politics. Their high turnout marks an important shift in British politics which will hopefully persist in the future.
Another vital benefit of increasing young voter engagement and turnout is the balancing effect it has on the bias present in traditional media such as television and newspapers. Young people are significantly more likely to engage in politics on social media rather than in newspapers, allowing a counteraction of the bias present in overwhelmingly right-wing media sources, which often blatantly lie and misrepresent Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party. Even in viewing television debates, young voters are more likely to read reactions and responses to the debates on social media rather than in newspapers. This helps to account for the success of Corbyn and the Labour party, surprising to many – the negative portrayal and scaremongering within traditional media led many (including more liberal publications such as the Guardian) to believe success was utterly unlikely, yet online engagement of young voters was evidently hugely effective in changing the result.
Hopefully this result will show young people the power they have to effect change in British politics. Many disillusioned by the Brexit result (which did not reflect their views or interests) channelled this frustration and fury into thoroughly knocking the wind out of the Tories’ sails, as demonstrated by the election results. This sends a message to the British establishment – do not underestimate or ignore young people – but it also sends a message to young people themselves. We can affect change – we can massively alter the results expected and established. The Tories are in a significantly weakened state rather than a position of enormous power – thanks to us. Maintaining this engagement and energy means opposition in months and years to follow can be effective and empowering. Young people have proven that we can change the face of British politics, and we certainly intend to continue.