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Corbynmania and Labour’s historical relationship with young voters

Corbynmania and Labour’s historical relationship with young voters

Image: New Statesman

Sophia Moss

Class has always been deemed a major factor in determining which political party someone was likely to vote for in an election, but in 2017, age may have become more important. This shift became apparent after the 2016 Brexit referendum, when 70% of under 24’s voted to remain in the EU whilst over 60% of over 65’s voted to leave. The ‘age divide’ caused a lot of debate, and it seems to have continued into the 2017 General Election.

Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘victory’, where in actuality he lost the election, but did far better than expected, is largely credited to his younger supporters, because those under 29 were significantly more likely to vote Labour compared with those over 70, who were much more likely to vote for the Conservative party.

But how much of Labour’s success with younger voters is due to Corbyn himself? Do young people genuinely have ‘Corbyn Fever’, or are they just far more likely to support Labour in general?

Do You Become More Conservative With Age?

The young’s support for the Labour party certainly isn’t anything new.  There is a general consensus that younger voters are historically more likely to opt for Labour, the Lib Dems or (more recently) the Greens, whilst older voters are more likely to vote Conservative. Some have suggested that the age where people start to shift from Labour to Conservative is 34.

We can’t know for sure if this is due to the generation someone belongs, to or whether people really do become more Conservative with age, but when you meet a younger voter it is less likely (although not impossible of course) that they will vote Conservative. If they are going to vote Conservative, they may not tell their peers for fear of ostracisation.

The Youth Vote

The youth vote declined dramatically after 1992, with just 58% of young people voting in 1997,  49.4% in 2001 and 44.3% in 2005.  43% of under 25’s voted in the 2015 general election. Those aged 65 or over were 35% more likely to vote to in 2015 compared with just 12% more likely to vote in 1992. The young may generally support Labour in principle, but they became apathetic over the last 20 years.

So why did the youth vote fall? One could assume that young people today are more interested in Snapchat and Love Island than politics, but if that’s the case then how do you explain the surge in this years general election? Around 66% of 18-19 year olds, 62% of 20-24 year olds, and 63% of 25-29 year olds voted Labour in the 2017 general election. It’s still lower than the 65+ age group, but the gap is definitely shrinking.

‘They’re All The Same’

One way to explain voter apathy, is the idea that people are less likely to vote if there is not a big difference between the main political parties. Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ movement may have been immediately successful, but turning Labour’s traditional image towards the centre may have turned more people off politics in the long run.

A study which looked at the perceived difference between the Conservative and Labour parties from 1979 to 2001 found that 39.6% of young people thought there was a ‘great deal of difference’ between the two parties in 1979, but only 17.4% felt the same in 2001.

One of the biggest complaints you used to hear about the main political parties (especially in 2010 and 2015) was that they were ‘all the same’ and Cameron, Milliband and Clegg were basically interchangeable.  

If younger voters tend to be more radical and opposed to Conservatism, then it may have been harder for them to get excited about a candidate who didn’t really have anything new to say.  If you ask a younger Labour voter today why they voted the way they did, many of them will say it was because Jeremy Corbyn is ‘different’, he’s ‘human, and he ‘cares’. He ‘stands for something’.

Whether you agree with that ‘something’ or not is another question, but many people do see Jeremy Corbyn as a man of principle who stands for what he believes in. It was hard for many voters to tell what (if anything) Ed Milliband believed in, and unfortunately Nick Clegg lost a lot of credibility over his misguided attempts to increase his parties popularity by making unfounded promises. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn will suffer a similar fate if he is unable to fulfil his promises on tuition fees, but that remains to be seen.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn has managed to make Labour at least semi electable again is because of his vocal opposition to the Iraq war. Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq also significantly damaged his parties reputation in a way that still affects it today.  It could also be due to the ‘youth specific’ policies, and the fact that the Labour campaign actually understood how to use social media without many embarrassing attempts to be ‘down with the kids’. There is something refreshing about a campaign that appears to take you seriously.

The Importance Of Grass Root Campaigns

The excitement around this year’s general election was unparalleled, at least in my experience. Labour’s affiliation with grass root activism certainly seems to have paid off, because young people were voluntarily spending their time campaigning,  posting Labour’s campaign videos and banners on Facebook, and persuading each other to vote as a matter of urgency.

Labour’s campaign worked because those who believed in it spread the word of their own accord, whereas the only advertising you were likely to see from the Conservatives was shared by their own official accounts. The Tories may have won, but their supporters didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic during the campaign.

If young people tend to be more radical and idealistic than their older peers, then perhaps Corbyn’s supposedly disastrous return to Labour’s ‘old ways’ actually saved the Labour party from an embarrassing defeat.

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