New research reveals surprising truth about the 'youthquake' in the 2017 election
It's not what we thought at all
It was the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2017; cited as the reason for the shock General Election result in 2017 which saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour destroy Theresa May’s majority, and force the Tories to do a deal with the DUP.
But it turns out that the much-cited ‘youthquake’ - that is, young people registering and turning out in their droves to vote for their Labour leader saviour - was little more than a myth.
In the wake of the unexpectedly excellent Labour performance whereby they gained 30 seats and achieved their highest vote share since 2001, experts rushed to try and find an explanation for the events which virtually no pundits had predicted.
Their answer? Given the fervent support among young people that Corbyn appeared to command, with all those rallies and the support from grime artists who urged people to register to vote for Labour, the result must surely have been caused by the impressionable youth. The term ‘youthquake’ was coined, and widely adopted by pundits.
But it now transpires that there was no such surge in youth turnout.
The evidence has come with the completion and publication of the British Election Study’s face-to-face survey, which is described as the ‘gold standard’ for measuring electoral behaviour, painstakingly designed to be as representative of the country as can be and involving as much cross-referencing and verification as possible.
Of course, in a country where your vote is private and unknowable, no survey will ever be perfect, but in the words of the BBC, “the results are as close to the truth about who turned out to vote as we can get”.
So what did they find?
Among the very youngest voters, those aged 18-20, in all likelihood there was actually a slight decrease in turnout (although a slight increase is possible, given the margin of error).
The real rise in turnout actually occurred between people aged 25-40. There was also a slight increase in people aged 60-70, and a slight decrease in voters aged 80+, although older people (around 60+) were still the most likely to vote. Overall, there was an increase in turnout of 2.5 percentage points.
As further analysis shows, the share of the vote that Labour attracted from people aged 18-20 did increase - from around 47% to around 67% - but Labour’s vote share went up among everyone, up to the age of around 70.
And, regardless, an increase in vote share is not what the proposed ‘youthquake’ was supposed to be about.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ vote share remained pretty much identical to the 2015, pre-Referendum general election, apart from those aged 60+, where they saw big gains; presumably (though it’s dangerous to presume anything, as this survey shows) as former UKIP voters switched over to the party who were promising to deliver a hard Brexit.
So what does this mean for the future?
Well, for a start, let’s all stop jumping to quick and easy conclusions in the wake of an election: while a key strategy of Corbyn and Labour was to mobilise young voters, just because they were successful in the overall results, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was that strategy which was responsible.
Labour may, in fact, be more pleased with this apparent debunking of one of their much-trumpeted achievements. Why? Well, it seems that their policies were popular for virtually everyone below the age of 70, not just the very young, a not insignificant achievement. It also suggests that if they actually can achieve a ‘youthquake’ at the next election, then there are still many more new voters out there to pick up. Of course, given that they tried to do this and failed, it won’t necessarily be any easier next time.
(Main image: Rex, charts: Tom Calver)