At the 2015 general election, 11.3 million people voted for the Tories and 9.3 million voted Labour. And 15.7 million people eligible to vote did not do so. They included more than half of the under-25s, but less than a quarter of the over-65s.
No wonder, then, that the concerns of young people have been drowned out in the 2017 campaign by the sound of older people moaning. I’m not suggesting Theresa May hasn’t given them plenty to moan about – if she hadn’t, they would probably moan about that – but if ever there was an argument that voting works, it is surely the panic that grips politicians when pensioners wake from their afternoon nap and exercise their democratic right to a good whinge.
Meanwhile, the young have been urged to register to vote by badger hero and guitar enthusiast Brian May and others at Rize Up UK (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This is not the first organisation founded with the lofty aim of encouraging “yoof” to exercise their democratic right, and unless Labour wins the election and finally extends the franchise to 16-year-olds, it won’t be the last. Why? Because by the time teenagers are old enough to vote, most have other things on their mind.
The fact is that those who fail to vote at their “first” election are less likely to vote at any subsequent one, and no amount of bad spelling will change that.
Given young people’s attachment to smart devices, the argument (often the one they themselves put forward) that they lack the information necessary to make an informed decision simply doesn’t wash. They are, almost by definition, far better informed than previous generations. Perhaps they are simply too well-informed.
All we have heard recently (from all sides) is an argument about the not-unreasonable expectation that those who can afford to should contribute some of their savings to the cost of their own survival. What on earth are they saving for otherwise?
Yet, apart from Labour’s pledge to scrap university tuition fees (which the party introduced in the first place) and the Liberal Democrats’ heady promise to legalise cannabis (which rather takes the fun out of getting high), we have heard little that is likely to tempt the young into the polling booths.
It’s not that policies designed to help the young do not exist, just that the deafening creak of an elderly population limbering up has all but drowned them out.
Few people are inclined to spend an hour of their life they’ll never get back actually reading a party manifesto – certainly not the Tories’, who for the first time in history have serialised publication to take account of the latest U-turns.
But for those with the patience to read Labour’s set of election promises, the surprise is that apart from a single page dedicated to tuition fees there is nothing specifically targeted at the under-25s – the age group least likely to vote. Nowhere in the chapter headers do the words “young” or “youth” appear.
This is more than insulting. It is potentially disastrous for a party that has always preferred to look towards a technicolour future rather than dwell in a sepia-toned past. Look back at theelection addresses of Labour leaders from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair and you will find them peppered with references to the next generation.
And yet it is the young who have embraced the vision of Jeremy Corbyn. It is the young on whom CLPs such as mine must rely if they are to convince voters to turn out to vote. And it is the young who have most to lose by not doing so.
So, where are they? It is not apathy that keeps them at home, but antipathy. Not theirs, but the politicians’, who give every impression of being “not bovvered”.
If Labour is serious about attracting young people’s votes and not just their sympathy, it needs to make them a serious offer, published in a separate “youth manifesto”.
This doesn’t need to be lengthy and it doesn’t need to be detailed, but it does need to contain a believable promise that young people’s opinions matter.
In 2002, the Electoral Commission published its own report into Voter Engagement and Young People. The most frequently identified reason for not voting was “inconvenience or happenstance”. Unlike millions of older people with time on their hands, young people have other things to do on polling day.
Surely the time has come to consider not just “‘early voting” but electronic voting. Critics argue that e-voting would widen inequality due to the “digital divide” between those with access to the internet and those without. However, such a divide, albeit due to different reasons, already exists and has long favoured the Tory Party. The introduction of e-voting would at least enable the young to both organise and vote in a language they are comfortable with.
Until then, organised greed will continue to win out over disorganised democracy, and Theresa May’s vacillation will prove to be as strong and stable as granny’s frayed knicker elastic.