the british youthquake
by hana wilson
Over the last two decades the British youth have been heavily criticised by politicians, journalists and older generations for being passive and unmotivated when it comes to political participation. These criticisms became especially harsh in the past two years which saw some of the most important votes in recent British history, including the Scottish Referendum and the Brexit vote. Both had very low youth voter turnout. However, on June 8th, record-breaking numbers of voters 25 years old and younger turned up to polling stations across the U.K. to vote in the 2017 General Election with the majority supporting Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. This unprecedented turnout swung the vote in favour of Corbyn while Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party, only won the election with a minority while she had expected to sweep a majority.
Appealing to the Youth
The Conservative and Labour Parties, the two main political parties in the U.K., had vastly differing manifestos. May focused on strengthening leadership and the economy and included taking a tough stance on Brexit negotiations and security. Corbyn's manifesto also touched on Brexit negotiations and a fair economy, however, he placed greater emphasis on achieving social equality through improving education, healthcare and modifying tax burdens for certain income brackets. While May proposed more cuts to social program funding, Corbyn promised to restore funding to necessary programs such as accessible housing and home health care services.
Overall, Theresa May's manifesto seemed much more economic-focused while Corbyn focused on relevant social issues. Jan Scott, David Fowler and Pat McGorry--professors of psychology and mental health in Australia and the U.K.--highlighted that the youth vote swung in favour of Corbyn because “their problems are more than economic.” While May proposed cuts to the National Health Service (NHS), including many mental health services, Corbyn promised to “reverse the damage done to mental health services” by the Tory government. His manifesto resonated with the youth population because it appealed directly to the problems that they face each day.
British polling system YouGov reported that nearly 60% of youth aged 18-24 voted in the 2017 election, with at least 65% of them voting Labour, compared to the 43% of youth who turned out to vote in 2015. Political experts in the U.K. cite the fallout from the Brexit vote, especially the “battle between the generations,” as a major reason for the youth swing to support Corbyn. Many young voters spoke to their anger with their parents and grandparents who assumed that they did not know enough to vote properly. The youth seemed unhappy with the older voters thinking they knew what was best and showed that they were ready to take their future into their own hands in this election. One young voter from London wrote on social media that Corbyn gave them “something to vote for” and made them believe they could “change the world.”
The Power of Social Media
Corbyn recognized the importance of social media and used it masterfully to reach the masses. He used an Instagram account to share a mix of both personal and political posts which allowed young voters to connect with who he is as a politician and as a human--something that May was unable to achieve. Corbyn's own accounts helped spread his popularity because of the accessibility and shareability of posts and tweets.
Beyond Corbyn's own use of social media, the unified voice of youth on all platforms had a huge impact on the spreading of the Labour manifesto and encouraged people to join together to register to vote. The hashtag #VoteLabour was trending in the week leading up to the election, and #ElectionSelfie or #IVoted were trending all day on Twitter and Instagram. The hashtags served as a place where people could find photos of friends and celebrities as well as posts about why people were voting Labour and encouragement for other youth to do the same.
While social media helped connect youth across the U.K., many celebrities and influencers used their public platforms to encourage voting. Youtuber Hannah Witton posted an instagram post saying she was voting Labour to "protect the most vulnerable in society" and that she was "voting for hope." Many celebrities did the same, posing for pictures with fans at polling stations or sharing photos or tweets about why they were voting Labour.
Actress Maisie Williams encouraged her followers to “vote for [their] future” by retweeting several Labour Party tweets and other articles about the importance of the youth vote and reminding her followers of their ability to use their voice and vote for positive change. The idea of the emerging generation holding the power to provoke change was echoed with many influencers online and soon became an idea that united the youth across all platforms.
Singer Lily Allen has been very open about her anger with May and the Conservatives sharing numerous tweets and articles over the past several weeks. Allen has remained vocal about the political fallout from the election, sharing several articles with her followers about the happenings in the British Parliament, what it means for the country, and reminding people to stay engaged in order to hold the government accountable for their promises.
Young voters were drawn into the political debate because they recognized its importance not only for their own futures, but also for its world impact. Over the past year, and particularly the last six months, youth political involvement has increased dramatically. They were united by international marches against American President Trump which seems to have sparked greater engagement worldwide amongst young people. The result of the American election might have also been a factor for the increase in youth turnout in the U.K. as they wanted to ensure their voices were heard.
No longer are people voting for short-term issues. Instead there is a greater awareness for the long-term impact and what the future will look like. The youth are recognizing the importance of their voices and are making themselves heard on social media, at organized marches, and are now demanding their political leaders to listen to them and take them seriously.
May and the Conservatives won the election but the impact of the youthquake will be felt in the years to come. The British youth stood up and voted for their future and young people around the world watched them do it just as they watched the American youth stand up against Trump. The face of political engagement is changing as youth are taking more responsibility for what they want the world to look like. The strength of a unified youth voice says: we are here, we are watching, and we care about our future.
Thumbnail photo via Art Fund