Young Voters & the EU Referendum: What’s not working?

With less than two months until polling day it’s becoming increasingly clear that that the pro-EU, but politically disengaged, under-35 voters have the opportunity to play a key role in the upcoming referendum. Only half are currently planning on voting, 1 in stark contrast to the predominantly older Brexiters. Youngsters not participating in politics is no breaking news, but normally it’s a reflection of their lack of engagement with the issue. What’s paradoxical about now is that they do have an opinion, but are still preparing to sit back and let others decide their future – so what’s going on?

I guess I’m IN, but I don’t really understand it.”

Given the current abundance of EU-related information in the media, this may sound like an excuse. It is not. Many people have thanked us for offering to send them a curated list of pro-EU facts and arguments specifically relevant for young voters; they are genuinely relieved that someone will do the fact-sieving for them. The heated public debate (whilst clearly necessary) has confused them to the point of paralysis. Not a day goes by when a new dimension isn’t spectacularly revealed, and you could be forgiven for thinking that to even have an opinion on the EU – let alone exercise it through voting – you need to have a degree in it.

The result is that many young people feel their pro-EU sentiments aren’t justified, and therefore not concrete enough to act on. And faced on a daily basis with reminders of their infinite knowledge gaps (Schengen? Agricultural subsidies? Dangerous criminals?) they start to question their affiliation. No such malaise haunts the Brexiters, who have had years to build up their resentment towards the EU, along with a ‘fact/fib bank’ to back it up.

“There’s no way we’d actually leave the EU.”

It’s absolutely shocking how many educated, news-following young people genuinely believe this. Of course they know there’s a debate going on, but the idea of waking up on June 24th to discover we’ve left Europe seems, frankly, fantastical. And if we know the outcome anyway, why bother getting involved? A group of creative media types we met in Soho put it best: ‘We don’t know anyone who’s pro-Brexit. Guess we’re all inside the liberal London bubble.’ Social and cultural bubbles form everywhere, but it’s ironic that while normally the internationally-minded-urban-young-professionals bubble would be an asset to the EU camp, in this particular case it actually drives a dangerous type of complacency.

I don’t feel that my vote will make a difference.”

In a simple In/Out referendum – when the votes of young people are highly likely to make a difference – this is a very significant challenge. Yet the sad reality is that the combination of first-past-the-post and two-party politics has driven widespread disengagement amongst young voters.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue – the difference between political participation vs. holding political views. We know that young people have the latter, since all polls show that they are largely pro-EU. The reason they’re not enthused about getting involved in this referendum is the same as why they never vote – none of the leading campaigns are actually representing them, talking in their language or championing the values they really care about. This has been identified before2 and we can see it come through once again in the words of Sam Kriss of Vice Magazine (that trendy voice of youthful wisdom): ‘It’s not that I’m being torn between two sets of equally persuasive arguments; instead, I’ve found myself cowering terrified in the dead centre… On one side, the malign alliance of Nigel Farage and George Galloway, their slimy faces visibly dripping in the torchlight. On the other, David Cameron, flanked by a stern phalanx of veiny-necked City boys, who always know what’s best.’ As a campaign group, Britain Stronger In Europe has a lot of strengths, but appealing to young people isn’t one of them.

So, what’s the solution? Firstly, there is a strong need for clear and easily digestible information. The government’s pro-EU leaflet should help with this, but given that many young people don’t look through their mail until they can no longer avoid tripping over it in the corridor, it would be highly beneficial to circulate that content through other channels as well. Secondly, the fact that young people are going to play a key role needs to be really drilled home for them. Not only is Brexit a very real possibility, but the power to stop it is in their hands! That would be a powerful and empowering message, as long as young people feel it is genuinely directed at them.

Inese Smidre is a member of Remain Great, Remain IN, a grassroots campaign set up to mobilise under-30 voters to participate in the EU referendum.

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