The youth vote is an untapped resource for deadlocked parties

Ed Miliband has a strong set of policies for young people - now he must convince them of this

 

As we enter the twilight stages of the 2015 election campaign, all of the main parties are desperately trying to find a way to break the electoral logjam that has been in place for much of the past year.

After all, despite three televised debates and six manifestos, nothing has really emphatically moved the polls since Labour and the Conservatives began to converge, with both major parties still seeming a step or two behind a majority verdict.

While many people may have made up their minds, there is still a large group of voters up for grabs – five million of them in fact. I’m talking about young people, many of whom are first-time voters.

Previous Demos research has shown that young people are less likely to strongly identify with one party, and cannot easily be characterised as right or left wing. Many, particularly young women, have quite tough attitudes towards welfare, and are sceptical about the ability of the state to solve social problems. However, they are also overwhelmingly pro-EU, pro-immigration, and think more needs to be done to address gender equality, racial discrimination and gay rights.

Only around half of 18-24 year olds voted in 2010. Disillusionment with the political establishment remains high. Many young people feel ignored by politicians, and don’t trust them to deliver on their promises – no doubt exacerbated by the Lib Dems’ infamous tuition fees u-turn. In addition, there are significant fears about the effect of the introduction of individual electoral registration on young voters who were previously registered by their parents, college or university in their first election.

For Labour, or indeed any party seeking to win them over, the biggest challenge, then, is to show young voters that their government’s policies would be relevant and beneficial to their needs and values. Too often, the youth vote is seen as synonymous with the student vote, and thus finds itself confined to the old debate over tuition fees.

Yes, Labour’s pledge to cut fees might help, but the harder sell is to convince the ‘forgotten half’ of young people who don’t attend university that Labour has something to offer. This group is currently less likely to vote, and less likely to be interested in politics.

But Ed Miliband does have a strong set of policies for this group. Non-student 18-24 year olds are more likely to be concerned about living costs and affordable housing, making their energy price freeze, housebuilding and rent increase control policies potential vote winners. Perhaps more importantly, they are far more likely to register immigration as a key concern.

While Labour are obviously trusted less in this area overall, with this group of voters so important at this late stage, Miliband’s decision to pledge controls on immigration seems vindicated, despite his moving the party to the left on other issues.

Whether Labour can pull this off or not, youth turnout is incredibly important for the health of our democracy. Non-party organisations like Bite the Ballot, vInspired, League of Young Voters, RegistHER to vote and #XXVOTE are spreading the word in schools and on campuses as well as social media. They’re using innovative campaign techniques, bringing in celebrities and YouTubers, and have invested in sleek new shareable tools, none more so than voter advice tools, in which users answer questions that match them with the different parties.

We at Demos teamed up with Bite the Ballot to create Verto, a strictly neutral tool which presents users with simple statements and gives instant results. We’ve based our statements on formal party positions, and consulted all the parties throughout the process. It’s specifically designed with young people in mind, so we’ve included the issues we know from our research they care most about.

One of the most common complaints in our focus groups was that the parties aren’t clear about where they stand. That’s why we’ve kept Verto jargon-free, and giving it a ‘Tinder’ feel that allows users to simply swipe right or left to agree or disagree with a statement.

The rest is up to the parties. We, and others, are providing young people with neutral information, and numerous groups are pushing hard to encourage young people to vote. Labour’s challenge now is to effectively make the connection between their policy platform and the interests of the youngest generation of voters. If they can achieve this, Miliband may find himself with five million new members for his coalition of support – which could well be enough to tip the scales in his favour.

Charlie Cadywould is a researcher at Demos. Follow him on Twitter

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