Getting Into Politics From an Apolitical Environment – How to Mobilise Young Voters

Jack Callaghan makes the case for Labour reaching out to young voters ahead of the next election, suggesting ways the party could do this.

“They’re all the same!” I hear it every time I talk about politics with my family, and to a certain extent, I can see where they are coming from. My family are the so-called traditional Labour voter; Northern, working-class people who mostly work in manual jobs. However, no one in my family votes, and they haven’t for a number of years. 

It is now accepted wisdom within the Labour Party to assume that these kinds of voters are the dealbreakers for the next election, but from my own experiences, this is neither realistic nor sustainable. It would take proof from governance to win over these voters again, and without any noticeable, real terms improvements in the lives of these disillusioned, heartland voters, Labour will struggle to fight the media and shake off the lasting effects of the culture war. On the doorstep, I hear the tabloid lines with grim regularity: that Labour has abandoned working class voters, and that they no longer trust Labour to represent them effectively. For this line to have stuck with voters, it must have some element of truth, with my own Gran telling me that she “always voted for Labour because that’s what [her] parents always voted”, but how it feels like “nothing ever changes”.

Without time in Number 10, Labour will not win this demographic again. Instead, we should turn our attention to young voters. Young voters have long preferred the progressive politics of which the Labour Party ought to lead the way. The political trauma of the last twelve or so years has forced the youth to question their relationship with the party in government; the financial crisis, the EU referendum, and, most notably, the pandemic, have all forced party politics into the mainstream of their lives. Labour ought to take advantage of this, first winning the support of young people, and then enacting a legislative programme to keep it.

Firstly, the easiest way to attract the support of young voters is to focus on issues which are important to them. According to a survey from The Guardian in 2017, some of the key issues to younger voters included educational reform, employment opportunities, the environment, housing prices, mental health, the reduction of the voting age, and tuition fees for university. These are all important issues which the Labour Party should already want to address, but if we want to attract young voters to the party, then we need to make these vital talking points ready for the next election. In particular, the environment is one issue which is an easy vote winner among young voters; widespread school strikes over global warming prove that they are willing to mobilise over pressing issues, so it is safe to assume that they would also vote for said issues. However, it is also important for Labour to acknowledge the nuances in young people’s experiences; the experiences of a black kid in London will have little similarity to the experience of a white kid in the north east. When election time arrives, activists, MP’s, and members must adjust and tailor their message to the needs and wants of young people in the area.

While recognising the nuance of these youth experiences, it is vital to not separate working-class movements from the youth movement, because young people are often working class, and they share some very similar experiences with traditional working class people; the left all too often neglects the shared struggle of the working class and the young, two groups who know the harm of precarity more than most. Localised strategies, which seek to mobilise the youth rather than sigh in their face on the doorstep, are key to Labour’s future.

However, it is not simply what we say, but rather how we say it. The popularity of progressive, young politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the USA, and Zarah Sultana here in the UK, shows the appeal of movements which have empathetic and passionate young people at the forefront. Moulding this into an online image which understands the accessible power of the often maligned “Instagram activism” should help fight the youth’s preconceptions about the often outdated style of the Labour Party, which will always appear soulless and uninspired to inactive young voters.  

Once in government, the Labour Party should secure the youth in three ways. First, through the expansion of political education. At the moment, political education in secondary schools is severely lacking, and political education in primary schools is almost non-existent. This is an intentional tactic from the Conservative government. Expanding political education is not in their interests, but it is in ours. Educating young people about politics in school will make sure that they are exposed to politics in a meaningful way, even if their own parents have already withdrawn themselves from the political system, like mine. A push for political literacy might range anywhere from looking at what a Prime Minister is in Year 5 and 6, to exploring how to vote, what the political parties stand for, and why you should vote in secondary school.

An absence of political literacy has resulted in generations of younger people in the dark over the electoral process. Our present system, which requires active voter registration, is actively discriminating against these people. In an article from the Electoral Reform Society about a report from Paul Bernal and Toby James, the author mentions several options for reforming voter registrations, including automatically adding 16 year olds to the register when they are issued with their National Insurance number. Together with a new understanding of political systems through enhanced political education, a policy such as automatic registration would not only add around 700,000 voters to the register every year, with minimal administrative effort, it would also force young people’s neglected interests into the spotlight of the nation’s political atmosphere.

To fight this disillusionment among the youth, we should also extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year old registered voters. This has already had amazing results in Scotland, where 16 and 17 year olds are able to vote in local elections and Scottish Parliament elections. A survey for the electoral commission found that 75% of those aged 16 and 17 voted in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, evidence of organised political engagement. However, in Wales, where 16 and 17 year olds are also able to vote in local and Welsh Parliament elections, 54% reportedly failed to register to vote prior to the 2021 Welsh Parliament election, which shows that extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds will not automatically engage them in the world of politics, so Labour need to accompany any reduction in the voting age with political education in our schools and electoral registry reform to address the turnout problem among young voters.

Now more than ever, the Labour Party need a youthful revival, with young people themselves leading the fight. In looking towards the future, Labour need to invest in it now, and take the opportunity to establish themselves not only as the party of the left, or the party of workers, but also as the party of the young. In an age darkened by Conservative greed and immorality, the Labour Party should stand as a beacon of light and progress for young voters for years to come, and that needs to start now.

Jack Callaghan is an A-Level student from Hartlepool. They are interested in education, the environment, and socialist, working class politics.

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