‘There is fear in the air’: Britain’s young voters mobilise amid Brexit battle

Boris Johnson’s actions and expected election lead to surge in voter registrations

Lara Spirit, co-founder of London-based group Vote For Your Future, set up to encourage young people to register to vote.  Photograph: Simon Carswell

Lara Spirit, co-founder of London-based group Vote For Your Future, set up to encourage young people to register to vote. Photograph: Simon Carswell

 

“Brilliant,” says Londoner Rachel Annandale (25), reacting to the ruling by Scotland’s highest civil court that Boris Johnson’s five-week prorogation of the UK parliament is unlawful.

The young communications executive, strolling in north London, is buoyed not just by the court’s decision but by the reaction of young British voters to the dramatic political events of the past fortnight.

Almost 500,000 people registered to vote in the eight days after Johnson indicated that he planned to call a snap election to thwart rebels within his own party who want to stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal. Sign-ups are more than double the average daily rate and the bulk of the applications have come from people aged 34 and under.

“It takes something like this to wake people up to the inefficiencies of our constitution and the flaws of our democracy,” said Annandale.

Johnson and his aides in 10 Downing Street are fearful of the youth vote that swung so decisively against Brexit in the 2016 referendum and helped the Labour vote in the 2017 general election, contributing to the loss of the Tory majority.

Polling data suggests that 75 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain in the EU. In the 2017 election, turnout among young voters increased 16 per cent on two years earlier, with more than half the 18-24 age group voting.

Many young people realise that they could be expected to make a very important vote, potentially the most important vote of their lives, in the coming months

Driving voter registrations were reports that Johnson’s campaign team had admitted that one advantage of an October 15th election was to limit the number of students registering to vote. Downing Street aides are said to have considered college term times making it more difficult for students to register or to return home to vote.

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“It was almost intended to stymie students. I think that has motivated a lot of students to register to vote,” said Robert Murtagh, president of the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland.

The “anti-democratic nature” of the prime minister’s shutting down of parliament and his “casual expression” that he might break the law outlawing a no-deal Brexit has been a game changer for young people, said Eloise Todd, a former Labour MEP candidate who helped the recent Stop the Coup protests against the Johnson government’s pro-Brexit parliamentary manoeuvres.

“There was an urgency and fear in the air that this was completely different to the anti-Brexit and pro-People’s Vote support. What was this guy doing? He is riding roughshod over this fragile democracy. This has got through to a lot of young people and they are worried,” said Todd.

‘Genuine chaos’

In London, Lara Spirit (22), one of the activists behind the pro-EU youth group Our Future, Our Choice, has turned her attention to non-partisan group Vote For Your Future and a new campaign to encourage registrations of young voters. Johnson’s suspension of parliament has brought a new focus on the importance of scrutinising decision-makers, she says.

“With that [suspension] came a sense of genuine chaos, upheaval and a constitutional crisis that has definitely made many young people realise that they could be expected to make a very important vote, potentially the most important vote of their lives, in the coming months,” she says.

She believes youth turnout in the next election “will be higher than it has ever been”.

Anti-Brexit protesters carry ‘Stop The Coup’ banners near parliament in London. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Anti-Brexit protesters carry ‘Stop The Coup’ banners near parliament in London. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

While Labour enjoyed the benefit of a so-called “youthquake” in 2017, political scientists say that the gain was only incremental, a percentage point and a half. This time around Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguous position on Brexit could drive young voters to the Liberal Democrats, who look poised to support an outright cancellation of Brexit, or the Green Party, which believes the UK should stay in the EU.

“High rates of registration don’t necessarily mean the result is going to be very different,” said Dr William Jennings, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton.

“Even if you had substantial youth turnout, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to go to Labour.”

Near Mr Corbyn’s constituency in north London, young voters support this view.

“He has let us down with Brexit. He hasn’t listened to his party. He is trying to appease the Brexit-voting north and the older generation,” said Annandale.

Joe Saxon (24), a university employee, said he used to vote Labour “all the time” but he is “very pro-Remain” and would consider changing his vote because of the party’s mixed messages.

“I would consider Lib Dem because Jeremy Corbyn has not been very clear on Brexit,” he said.

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