Voter turnout could swing EU referendum and there’s a hole in the electoral register

Conservative changes to the voting system mean that young Remain supporters are less likely to be on the electoral roll


It’s becoming clear that voter turnout is one of the deepest fault lines in the Remain campaign, and that the leading parties need to commit more energy and resources to mobilising their base.

New Opinium research, commissioned by the Observer, shows that 50 per cent of Brexit-backing voters believe that EU membership is one of the three most important issues affecting the UK, while just 15 per cent of Remain supporters feel the same way.

There’s a major generational divide in engagement levels. 12 per cent of 25-34 year-olds consider EU membership a major issue, while 53 per cent over-65s rank it in their top three.

Additionally, just 15 per cent of Labour voters and 16 per cent of Londoners consider the EU a major issue.

Clearly, the rhetoric that describes this as the most important vote of our lives simply isn’t trickling down to the young, urban, progressive base of Remain supporters. The Outers, on the other hand, have an enthusiastic core of voters in demographics with traditionally high turnout rates.

As Matthew Goodwin writes for the Times, once this data is taken into account it becomes ‘quite easy to challenge the widespread belief that Remain will win and, instead, chart a plausible route to Brexit.’

He directs much of his criticism towards the Labour leadership, citing the fact that over 40 per cent of voters don’t even know what Labour’s position on the EU is. 

There is no question: Jeremy Corbyn needs to do vastly more to mobilise Labour supporters.

However, if turnout does have a decisive impact on the referendum, the Conservatives will also have a great deal to answer for, because they are responsible for the gaping hole in the electoral register.

Almost 800,000 names have been deleted from the electoral roll this year, as a result of Conservative changes that require individual, rather than household, registration. Overall, since its peak in 2012, the number of names on the register has fallen by 1.6m.

While the Government maintains that the names removed were ghost entries, many legitimate voters were disenfranchised, particularly younger people, who are less likely to have stable accommodation, and more likely to vote Remain.

The move was widely perceived as political, with Gloria De Piero, Labour’s shadow minister for young people and voter registration, describing it as ‘another example of David Cameron and the Conservative party trying to rig the system for their own political ends.’

If that was the case, it has backfired horribly as Cameron now faces the possibility of a defeat in the most important vote of his career, fuelled by his own anti-participation policies.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. 

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.