Abi Wilkinson is a freelance journalist and Labour party member currently based in London. She writes about politics from a left-of-centre perspective for the Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent and various other outlets.
Here’s a fact I wish I could plaster on billboards across the country: if young people vote in the upcoming general election at the same rate as pensioners, Labour will probably win. That massive, gaping gap in the polls doesn’t actually reflect which party the general public prefers. It’s just that come 8 June, if you’re aged between 18 and 24, your nan and granddad are almost twice as likely as you are to actually go to the ballot box and make themselves heard. Pollsters know this and take it into account in their predictions.
There are a whole host of different factors contributing to low turnout amongst young people. Insecure tenancies mean we’re more likely to move address on a regular basis, and drop off the electoral register as a result. Conservative changes to registration rules have made the situation even worse. We can only speculate about whether this consequence was deliberate, but at the very least the party will consider it a fortuitous side effect.
People in their 20s are also far more likely to be apathetic about politics. Not necessarily because we don’t think there are problems that need solving, but because we don’t trust anyone will actually make the necessary changes. One of the most pervasive ideas is that politicians are all the same. That it doesn’t matter what they say, when it comes down to it they’re all basically self-interested and voting won’t make any meaningful different to your life.
It’s easy to see how we got here. There have been a few high profile broken manifesto promises in recent years (hi there, Liberal Democrat tuition fees). The expenses scandal also did enormous damage to the reputation of the political class as a whole. That said, it’s flatly wrong that the party in power doesn’t have repercussions for all of us – the differences between Labour and the Tories in this election is perhaps at its greatest level in a generation.
The Conservatives’ electoral campaign has been light on details, but it’s reasonable to assume that if they remain in power it will be mainly a continuation of the status quo. Any changes are likely to be negative for young people – justified as necessary because of tough economic conditions. Brexit minister David Davis has spoken about cutting employment rights for young people to “help them complete” in the post-Brexit economy. (It’s worth noting that he was advocating the same thing in 2012, with a different justification, so his true motives might not be quite what he claims.)
In contrast, the recently leaked Labour manifesto lays out a dramatically different vision for the country. Stronger workplace rights, with every employee having the right to be represented by a trade union which will advocate for their interests. A cap on rent rises, so your landlord can’t decide to put the price up and leave you struggling to pay your bills. More secure tenancies, so they can’t evict you without good reason. A massive house building programme so more of us will be able to buy our own homes. Abolishing unpaid internships so your ability to get a first foot on the career ladder isn't dependent on your parents’ ability to pay your living costs. A cap on rip-off energy bills. High-speed internet in every part of the country. Free higher education and the return of maintenance grants.
The past decade has taught many young people to manage our expectations. Things like buying a home – which, as a teenager, I assumed I’d definitely be able to do at some point – currently seem like distant dreams. It’s important we don’t forget that this is the result of deliberate political choices. There are plenty of things the Conservatives could have done to help young people in the wake of the financial crash, they just decided not to bother. Most economists disagree that George Osborne’s harsh spending cuts were the best way to respond to the crisis – but he was pursuing an ideological agenda. And investing money in improving the country isn’t wasteful or unrealistic, it will actually strengthen the UK economy in the long term.
If you want evidence that voting matters, look how much more willing politicians across the spectrum are to cater to the needs of the old. As the Conservatives hacked away at benefits and tax credits for young families and working age people, they left pensions, free bus passes and winter fuel allowance intact. Labour’s manifesto includes policies to help the elderly and measures to improve the lives of the young.
We don’t have to tolerate the managed decline the Tories are happy to inflict on us. There’s no reason we must work long hours yet still struggle pay our bills and rent. If we choose to have kids, we shouldn’t have to worry about affording childcare. We don’t have to watch our public services get gradually worse – to the point we can’t rely on the NHS to care for us if we happen to fall ill. It’s in our hands to change things for the better. But if we want a government that caters to us, we need to actually make it to the polling station and give them our vote.
If you’re not registered to vote you can do it here – you have to be registered by 11.59pm of 22 May to be eligible to vote in the general election.