Will young people swing the vote of the European Referendum?
The debate around mobilising young voters in the EU Referendum was the topic of the live studio debate organised by visual think tank COVi in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) last Wednesday (15 June). The event at Somerset House brought together a panel of MPs, academic researchers and campaigners to thrash out what needs to be done to engage young people in the EU referendum debate.
COVi shared the findings from their interim report which highlighted the generational divide in attitudes towards the Brexit debate. While many young people find the EU referendum to be important, the majority of them feel poorly informed on the issues, which makes them less likely to vote. The research showed that the media’s attention-grabbing headlines and the absence of a forum in which young people can raise the issues most important to them (such as affordable housing, jobs, healthcare and immigration), only exacerbated the disconnect between young people and the Brexit debate.
This was mirrored by the experience conveyed by panellist and campaigner Joshua Pugh from Bite the Ballot who is working to engage politically unrepresented, marginalised young people on political issues using forums such as Tinder, Facebook and Twitter to reach these groups. He described the forthright efforts Bite the Ballot and Hope not Hate had made in their joint Turn Up campaign to educate and empower the disengaged youth on the importance of making their voices heard by voting on 23 June. He said “People who need politics most are the least likely to get involved.” He also spoke about the importance of building and maintaining trust within these communities.
COVi’s research also showed that there was better youth engagement when the most trusted people were used to convey the key political messages. Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson topped COVI’s poll as the most popular politicians on the Remain and Leave sides respectively. Panellist Kirsty Blackman of the SNP went a step further and spoke about the successful engagement of young people within the Scottish Referendum, where debate was encouraged in schools. She spoke about the importance that the EU Referendum campaign should have on picking relevant issues that would resonate with young people in their daily lives such as how the EU continues to protect workers’ rights.
Panellist and Conservative MP Sam Gyimah, a Remain supporter, described the tough choice in the referendum as being a binary decision even though the issues faced were not. He spoke about the challenges of trying to convey the real consequences of the other side’s policies without being accused of scaremongering. He acknowledged that the stakes were high and that it was important for young people to have their say because politics matters. He said: “The younger you are, the longer you’ll live with the consequences of the referendum”.
The discussion went on to highlight that we need to examine the mechanics of voting and make sure the key messages are made clear and relevant to young people. The messengers that young people trust should be at the forefront of the campaign and we need to de-mystify the political process and issues in order to give young people the confidence to make decisions.
So whatever you think about whether young people will or will not swing the vote of the EU Referendum, young people should be encouraged to have their say on 23 June as they will be the long term recipients of whatever the outcome will be.