Traditionally, political parties in the UK never really positioned themselves effectively to attract masses of younger voters because they rarely turned out in droves to vote. This lack of engagement could well be cyclical in that young people rarely voted because parties were not coming up with policies that inspired or benefitted them, and vice versa.
General Election analysis shows that turnout for 18 to 24 year-olds in 2005, 2010 and 2015 was just 40%. Turnout for the 2017 General Election jumped to 64%. This high youth turnout was arguably because they had something to vote for.
Labour’s 2017 manifesto offered free university tuition, it was a policy that young people saw as something just for them and one that they could greatly benefit from. The pledge certainly worked. It got young people to the polls, impacting heavily on the final result. Young people have realised that they can make a significant difference and political parties have only just seemed to grasp the fact that they matter.
The Conservative Party Conference in October was therefore dominated by discussions of how it could attract younger voters. The problem for the party is quite significant. The recent General Election results showed that the younger you were, the more unlikely you were to vote Conservative. The Conservatives need new policy ideas for younger people and they need to be genuine and achievable.
The next party to form a government will almost certainly be the one that offers the most to young people and focusses on policies that are top of the agenda for young people. Research shows that the major policy concerns at the moment relate to mental health, the environment, employment opportunities, climate change, and living standards. Despite this, the issues that currently dominate the political agenda are Brexit, immigration and housing.
But, promising young people everything and anything is a difficult game to play. The Liberal Democrats were once the party young people generally supported, but they were severely punished for their 2010 tuition fee U-turn. The Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out of Westminster in 2015, demonstrating that the party had not been forgiven. If Labour had won a majority in the 2017 General Election, and U-turned on their pledge to abolish tuition fees, they may have suffered a similar fate.
A number of organisations and parliamentarians are pressuring the Government to lower the voting age to 16. The Scottish independence referendum in 2014 saw 75% of 16 to 17 year olds use their vote. The issue is being taken seriously and if a lowered voting age ever becomes a reality UK-wide, the political parties who are not listening, who cannot follow through on their promises, and ignore those who will make up the majority of voters, could face a serious defeat.