By Dr Stuart Fox, Social and Political Sciences
13 Dec 2019
This was a truly momentous election for British politics. Against expectations of either a small Conservative majority or a hung parliament that may even see Jeremy Corbyn become the Prime Minister, the Labour Party fell to its worst result since 1983.
In fact, the last election to produce a result clearly worse than yesterday for Labour was in 1935. As in 2017, a great deal was made of the potential for a ‘youthquake’, in which young voters would flock to the polls to support the Labour Party and their promises of far more state support through policies such as the abolition of tuition fees, increasing the minimum wage and building more houses. And as in 2017, such claims have been exaggerated.
With about 627 seats declared by 6am, turnout was about 67%; almost two-points lower than in 2017. This is not a dramatic change, but it does suggest that a fair few 2017 voters have stayed at home, not least because an updated electoral register was released in early December, meaning that it is more accurate (i.e.,there are fewer people on it who shouldn’t be, such as those who have passed away or moved to another constituency). This fact alone means that turnout would have risen at least a little bit even if the exact same number of people voted yesterday as in 2017.The fact that turnout has fallen by almost two-points, therefore, suggests that there are a sizeable number of 2017 voters who stayed at home yesterday.
When it comes to younger voters, the data suggests that – as is true for every election – youth turnout lagged well behind that of their elders. If we look at the 20 constituencies with the highest proportion of 18-35 year olds, the average turnout yesterday was 63%; the turnout for the 20 constituencies with the fewest 18-35 year olds was 72%. The decline in turnout since 2017 was also slightly greater – at 1.5 points lower – in those constituencies with more young adults than those with the fewest – where it was 0.8 points lower. It is far too early to conclude that youth turnout fell substantially in this election, however, and even if it had it is unlikely to have played much of a role in Labour’s poor result: Labour held onto every one of the constituencies with the highest number of 18-35 year olds that it won in 2017.What is clear is that, once again, claims of a youthquake – a sharp rise in turnout among young voters that would benefit the Labour party – have proven well short of the mark. At no point in the campaign have the opinion polls suggested that a youth turnout surge would materialise, but there was a great deal of excitement surrounding the surge in voter registrations among the under-35s – 2.8 million between October and December of this year, more than half a million more than in the same period before the 2017 election – which fuelled claims that a youthquake was on the horizon.
It is certainly true that new additions to the electoral register were more likely to be in constituencies with more young adults. In those 20 constituencies with the most under-35 year olds and for which we have data on new registrations, the electoral register grew by an average of 5.9% since 2017, compared with 1.2% in those constituencies with the fewest 18-35 year olds. As was repeatedly pointed out before the election, however, an increase in electoral registrations among young adults does not mean that there will be a subsequent increase in youth turnout, and as the figures above show, this turned out to be the case. This is illustrated by the case of Sheffield Central, for example, where the electoral register grew by almost 16% between 2017 and 2019, whereas turnout between those two elections feel by 5%.
Are young people still Corbyn fans?
Despite the slight fall in turnout, Labour do appear to still dominate the youth vote in England and Wales. The party won all but three of the 20 constituencies with the most 18-35 year olds, with the three in Scotland going to the SNP. Labour’s vote did fall by an average of 4.5-points, however, with the party only increasing its vote in three constituencies (Bethnal Green and Bow, Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Portsmouth South). While there has been a national shift of something like 10-points from Labour to the Conservatives across the country, however, in the 20 youngest constituencies the Conservative vote has barely changed; while there are some exceptions (such as Coventry South, where they won 42% of the vote and gained about 4.4%), their vote fell by an average of 1-point in the youngest constituencies. Labour’s small loss of support in these parts of the country looks to have benefitted the Greens (whose support grew by an average of 2.1% in those of these constituencies in which they stood) and the Liberal Democrats (whose vote grew by 2.4%), though by nowhere near enough to threaten Labour’s hold on those seats.
Overall, Labour’s terrible result yesterday has little to do with young voters. It has been driven by the party’s failure to hold onto the support of constituencies with more older voters, particularly in Northern England and the Midlands, where the Conservatives’ message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ looks to have resonated quite strongly.