So was it Corbyn’s appeal to younger voters what swung last year’s general election in his favour? Not according to the British Election Study (BES) which today publishes a paper questioning the received wisdom that Labour’s unexpectedly strong showing was down to a surge of support from younger voters who managed to cast off their apathy for the first time. Indeed, claims the team, the Oxford English Dictionary may have been a bit premature in declaring ‘Youthquake’ as its word of the year.
The idea that Corbyn managed to inspire a generation of normally-apathetic youngsters was cast very early in the post-election analysis when it was noticed that some seats snatched by Labour had seen substantial increases in turnout. Canterbury, for example, which dramatically elected a Labour MP for the first time ever, saw turnout increase by nearly seven percentage points. Canterbury has a very youthful population thanks to three universities with a total of 31,000 students.
The only trouble, according to the BES, is that you can’t necessarily link the two. As the study puts it: ‘Turnout went up slightly in the sorts of places with lots of young adults. That does not necessarily mean it was those young adults doing the extra turning out.’ It claims an even stronger correlation between constituencies where turnout increased the most and the number of 0-4 year olds living in those constituencies – something which cannot be explained (unless there is serious electoral fraud in progress) by those 0-4 year olds turning out to vote.
What the BES does confirm, however, is that there is an increasingly strong correlation between age and the way people vote. Put simply, between the 2015 and 2017 general elections Labour increased its share of the vote among every age group up to 75. The Conservatives, on the other hand, increased their share of the vote only among the over-55s. Both parties were able to increase their overall share of the vote thanks largely to the collapse of Ukip.
What does it mean in practice? That the Conservatives would be unwise to focus too much of their efforts for the next election solely on the young. There is a temptation to do as Corbyn did and shamelessly target young voters with expensive policies like abolishing tuition fees, and to throw campaigning money at whichever social media platform is currently fashionable with youthful voters. Conservatives would be better trying to understand all generations of Corbyn converts, right up to those in their 70s.