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There's little evidence of a pro-Labour youth-quake in the 2017 General Election

Posted on 22 March 2018 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow
Tags: Jeremy Corbyn, Corbyn, politics

Voter Turnout


And Labour’s advance in last year’s general election, accompanied as it was by enthusiastic crowds of young voters flocking to hear Mr Corbyn’s words, appeared to demonstrate that his radical message could indeed reach parts of the electorate that the party had hitherto failed to reach.

Yet the latest research from NatCen Social Research’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey – a high quality annual survey that, unlike most opinion polls, contains almost as many people who abstained (27%) as actually did so in last year’s election (31%) - suggests Labour was not particularly successful in persuading its supporters to make it to the polls in 2017. Rather, the party’s supporters were less likely than their Conservative counterparts to turn out and vote – in much the same way as they have been at every other recent general election.

True, slightly more Labour supporters voted last June than had done two years previously. As our chart shows, at 80%, the proportion was four points up on 2015. However, turnout also increased a couple of points amongst Conservative supporters. And, at 88%, the level of participation amongst Conservatives was eight points higher than amongst Labour supporters, repeating a pattern that has been in evidence at every other recent election.

Not least of the reasons why Labour was not particularly successful at getting voters to the polls in 2017  is that the party’s support came heavily from younger voters. They have always been less likely to turnout at election time, and, despite some suggestions to the contrary, 2017 was no different in that respect.

Just 61% of 18-24 year olds voted last year, while only 57% of 25-34 year olds did so. In contrast 79% of those aged between 45 and 64 participated, while amongst the over 65s the figure was as high as 87%.

These differences are very similar to those that had been in evidence in 2015. Although turnout was up by five points on 2015 amongst 18-24 year olds, it increased in nearly every other age group too, leaving the age gap more or less unchanged. There is little sign that ‘Corbynmania’ brought many a young voter to the polls.

But if the level of turnout amongst younger voters in 2017 did little to enhance Mr Corbyn’s prospects, it did represent good news for those concerned about the longer-term health of Britain’s democracy.

When the overall level of voter turnout fell to a record low of just 59% in 2001, it dropped above all amongst Britain’s youngest voters. Just 42% of 18-24 year olds voted. Four years later the figure slipped even further, to just 40%, less than half the turnout recorded amongst the over 65s. Widespread concern was expressed that a whole generation of voters was opting out of politics.

Now it seems that that concern was misplaced. Little noticed though it was at the time, by 2015 turnout had already recovered substantially amongst 18-24 year olds, to 56%. As compared with that figure the 61% turnout recorded in 2017 does not look particularly remarkable. However, it does represent a much bigger increase in turnout as compared with 2001 or 2005 than in any other age group, suggesting that the earlier especially precipitous drop amongst the country’s youngest voters has indeed now been reversed.

Young voters today are relatively unenthusiastic about going to the polls, illustrating an almost ‘iron law’ of politics that Jeremy Corbyn was, unsurprisingly perhaps, unable to overturn. But at least they are no more reluctant to vote than many a generation of younger voters was before them. And as they age, so they like their predecessors, will doubtless come to vote more heavily too.


John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research and Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

This blog originally appeared in The Times.

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