In the last days before the EU referendum David Cameron and his team of Remain campaigners were still frantically trying to get young people’s attention. 18-34 year olds, the polls had said, were Britain’s great unharvested crop of Remainers. And everyone agreed that if enough of them turned out on June 23rd, it was in the bag.
So Remain had tried everything: an embarrassing video targeting “earnin’ goin’ livin’” millennials, dogged campaigning in university campuses, a social media campaign described as “patronising” by the London Evening Standard.
They did not edge it. Despite what was actually a reasonably high turnout amongst young people who were registered to vote, they had not managed to swing the result. Remain lost by 4%. This was not meant to have happened.
Yesterday, hidden within the cache of information dumped on the government website before ministers went to recess, was a clue as to what went wrong: a written statement by Gary Streeter, a spokesperson for the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which reported a full nine percentage point drop between 10th June 2014 and 1st December 2015 in the number of 18-19 year olds registered to vote.
The document recorded declines in almost every younger age group too, yet the total number of people on the register only dropped by just under one percentage point: older people (more likely to be Leave voters) had not suffered these falls.
At the time of the referendum, it has also emerged, the young were twice as likely as the old not to be on the voting register at all. There are anecdotes of young people turning up to vote only to realise they were not signed up.
The statement also reported a six percentage point decline amongst people who do not stay in one place for too long “such as those renting from a private landlord”. Private renters, breakdowns show, voted Remain.
What had caused this - possibly fatal - blow to the Remain campaign? Well, it turns out, it was David Cameron himself.
Back in October 2015, amid all the fuss over the House of Lord’s rejection of tax-credit reform, Cameron slipped another statutory instrument quietly through the chamber. It was a motion to change the responsibility for vote-registration from households to individuals.
The change had been due for December 2016 - plenty of time for voters accidentally left off the new list to get their act together and re-register. But Cameron had wanted to rush it through more than a year early. The reason? Those likely to be accidentally left off the new list were Labour voters.
These people - some 1.9 million of them - were mostly students (until last year student halls could sign up as a block), people who live in cities, and those who rent privately. In other words, not only were they Labour voters but also exactly the sorts of people Remain would later desperately seek votes from.
There’s a chance some of these groups had bulked out again by June 23rd, when overall levels of registration ticked up. But there’s a chance they had not. In July, assessing the results of the changeover, the chair of the Electoral Commission found there were “still too many voters not correctly registered, particularly young people”.
And the full effects of what Cameron did in October are yet to be felt. He did it to screw Labour in this year’s elections - those of the Scottish Parliament, London’s mayor, and the Welsh National Assembly - but also to skew an upcoming constituency boundary reform vastly in his favour. This redrawing of boundaries is to be based on a snapshot of the electorate from December 2015, thus - as least as far as yesterday’s figures indicate - permanently disenfranchising many thousands of Britain’s young, whether they re-register now or not.
Last year, as he prepared to rush the electoral roll change through, Cameron ignored warnings from the Electoral Commission, who said - breaking character - that it would be “hugely damaging to our democracy”. On June 24th, as democracy skidded out of his control like a broken trolley, he must have wondered what he had done.