I trust many readers will remember the final lines to the opening of Star Trek: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilisations, to boldly go where no-man has gone before”. Fellow members of the commentariat will no doubt feel like a crew member on the Starship Enterprise over the next 18 months as the consequences of the European Union elections, Scottish Referendum and General Election slowly unravel throughout society.
Discussions of our country’s future are becoming increasingly heated, and it is my belief that this reflects the re-emergence of demarcated ideological camps within Britain, a newly evolved version of Left and Right after two decades of dallying with centrism. In this evolving landscape, the Labour Party has a rare opportunity to win a majority if it can convince the electorate that they offer a politics for the people.
There is one group in particular Labour should be targeting. In the past every party has made overtures to the young. However, practical policies tend to be aimed at those over the age of 35, because this age group is seen as the place where elections are fought and won.
However by closely analysing data collated by polling company Ipsos-Mori, it is easy to see that the biggest swing in Labour voters from 2005 to 2010 was among young people. There are a number of possible explanations for this. Many young voters became disillusioned with the party after 2005 as the horrors of the Iraq War emerged and fears of domestic terrorism died down. This swing included the desertion of 20% of young female Labour voters, a clear indication that the party was failing on issues related to young women.
Many young people voting for the first time in 2010 had grown up under a Labour government, so both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats offered fresh alternatives. But the coalition’s failure to address the concerns of young people offer a potential moment for Labour to claim a new generation of voters that could hand them a majority in 2015.
Since 2010, people under the age of 35 have been hit by a triple-whammy of damaging policies. The first blow was the tuition fees hike. The second was the decision to bar under-25s from being able to claim benefits such as housing benefit and, in some circumstances, job seeker’s allowance. These two policies alone affect around 1.5 million young people. The third were cuts to tax credits which have affected young families and part-time workers, making it harder for them to claim the assistance they need.
Campaigning on how this government has undermined state support for the young offers Labour a clear way forward. The Conservatives have nailed their flag to the mast of the elderly electorate, while the Liberal Democrats are still fighting for the middle class vote. Labour has a year to stake its claim to the youth vote. This will not be achieved through the occasional photo op, or through empty commitments to youth issues and education. It will come through genuine engagement with those social issues that are close to them, and by treating young people as a diverse and concerned group in the electorate capable of expressing themselves.
With the Electoral Commission estimating that 55% of young people between the age of 17 to 24 are not registered to vote, any strategy must start by getting this group signed up to the electoral roll.
Such levels of apathy are not unique among young voters, but it is widely reported that too many of them feel patronised by party politics and disregarded as unimportant when it comes to election time. Behind all this is the suspicion that older generations doubt their capability to understand politics and do not take them seriously as a consequence.
The campaign to win back the youth vote must challenge young people’s ability to think for themselves, and ask them to consider the implications of political decisions on important issues. It should be a campaign which focuses on the frustrations of the under 35s and their apparent abandonment by this government, constant in its message that Labour is the only party which can offer them support over the next five years.