Young voters are unforgiving
London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes
Sure, every politician leaves a group of embittered former supporters who cannot forgive them for something.
People usually forgive politicians
But on the whole, electors forgive politicians. Voters have low expectations of what politicians will deliver (though electors also tend to believe in impossible promises). An election is about the future; the past is only partly a guide. Finally, winning counts for a great deal.
Think of Tony Blair. He is now seen as persona non grata amongst many or most Labour voters. But that level of bitterness only really came after he left office. The Gulf War lasted from 2003-2011 and fundamental problems surfaced pretty soon after the initial military victory. Opposition to Blair’s war policy did not prevent him winning the 2005 election.
Young people did not forgive the Liberal Democrats
But Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were treated differently. The failure to deliver on their promise to scrap tuition fees was a large part of their electoral wipe-out in 2015 and the lasting hostility they still experience.
A May 2017 survey of students showed support for the Liberal Democrats down to 12%, whereas in the past they had been the most-supported party. The hard Remainers who might have supported the Liberal Democrats in 2017 tended to be younger graduates who were the least forgiving on tuition fees.
I suggest that was because tuition fees particularly impacted on young adults and those who sympathise with them; and that younger people are unforgiving.
Neither statement is uncontestable. Perhaps tuition fees played a smaller part in electoral decisions than is commonly supposed (though over half of students said before the 2017 general election that the Liberal Democrat U-turn affected their voting intentions). And we can all think of easy-going young people and irascible old ones.
But as a general statement it seems plausible, and it will be at least partly true.
Young Remainers would not forgive Corbyn for Brexit
Labour’s June 2017 general election manifesto clearly sought a hard Brexit very similar in substance to the Conservatives’. However, Labour’s messaging led many of its voters to believe that it stood for Remain. In December 2017, over half of Labour-voting students thought that both Jeremy Corbyn and Labour stood for Remain. A separate poll at the same time found that 40% of Labour voters in general thought that Labour stood for Remain.
Labour did also promise to abolish tuition fees – but a pre-election survey showed that fewer than half of Labour-supporting students believed that they actually would. Moreover, the EU and NHS topped the poll of three issues that mattered most, with 66%; personal debt came well down the list with 4% (which also suggests that it was the breach of trust rather than the policy itself which harmed the Liberal Democrats). 72% said that Brexit would affect how they voted, with two thirds of those looking for a party that opposed Brexit.
So the belief that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn were for Remain was a big factor in the 2017 student vote, and perhaps also in the wider Labour Youthquake (whose existence continues to be disputed – this December 2018 LSE blog argues that it did happen).
Perhaps a betrayal by Jeremy Corbyn would not matter. The May 2017 poll also said that while 30% thought that opposing Brexit was more important than choice of party, 40% disagreed. But Brexit has surely become even more salient. And many Labour-supporting students had not realised at the time of the survey that they faced a dilemma.
So we should assume that many young Remainers would be deeply antagonised by a failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to stop Brexit. Nor would a change of leader solve the problem. Tim Farron had not been a member of the Coalition Government and still suffered the backlash. So the young Remainers now backing Corbyn and Labour would actually vote for some other party.
Leavers will not forgive Corbyn either – even with Brexit
Obviously Labour Leave voters will not forgive Corbyn if he stops Brexit. Surveys tend to show that Leavers care more than Remainers.
But it seems hard to believe that they will forgive him if Brexit goes ahead. After all, Jeremy Corbyn has consistently advanced a Boris-style fantasy Brexit. He still does, long after the Government has gone over to advocating a real-world compromise Brexit. Will Labour Leavers be grateful for any Brexit, no matter how far from their dreams? Or will they blame the man who promised them unicorns with sparkly horns?
Jeremy Corbyn “the man of principle” is playing a base electoral game. So far he has outdone even previous champion Theresa May in the prevarication and procrastination stakes. But at some point he will have to come down on one side.
No matter what he does, he will disappoint some of his voters. The young who support Remain will not forgive him for Brexit. Labour Leavers who believed in his Brexit fantasies will not forgive him for a real-world Brexit.
So he might as well come out for a People’s Vote – that tried and tested mechanism for papering over the cracks in a divided party.
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