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The UK's General Election 'Youthquake' Was Wishful Thinking

16/06/2017 16:58 BST | Updated 16/06/2017 16:58 BST
Leon Neal via Getty Images

This time last week, young people voted in the UK's general election. This fact, discussed with astonishment and awe, has become central to the post-election analysis and one of the key explanations for Labour's better than expected performance. In places such as Canterbury, where I live, 'the student vote' has become the phrase of choice for those getting to grips with how a 10,000 strong Conservative majority could be overturned.

But it's worth keeping the so-called 'youthquake' in perspective. Although David Lammy and the NUS were quick to big up a 73 per cent youth turnout, a YouGov poll released earlier this week puts the figure at a far more realistic 57 per cent. This is a big increase from the 2015 election when only 44 per cent of young people voted; however, it still means 18 - 24 year-olds are less likely to vote than any other age group.

It seems that many people so wanted to see a youthquake they didn't wait for the actual statistics before they began heaping praise on young people for voting.

Labour's Paul Flynn, re-elected in Newport West, said: 'I would like to say how thrilled and exhilarated I am about the welling up of idealism among young people. We can look forward with great excitement to the future of those young people, politicised now by hope, by idealism, by integrity.'

Staff at the music mag NME declared themselves to be 'incredibly proud' of young voters. The lecturers' union, UCU, was said to be 'delighted'; President Sally Hunt claimed it was 'a vindication of all those who worked so hard to encourage young people to register to vote, and to vote for the first time.'

At the same time, others have expressed cynicism that young people were so easily swayed by what the Daily Mail described as an '£11 billion tuition fee bribe'. Even Alan Johnson, Labour's former education secretary slammed the party for offering 'freebies for all to win elections'. 'There is nothing progressive,' he argued, 'about working people, many of whom will get nowhere near a university, cross-subsidising mainly middle class students to have a completely free higher education.'

It seems that the Conservatives want to believe in the youth vote so they have an easy target to blame for their poor performance. And Labour, having lost the support of many working class voters, want the youthquake to be real so they have a new constituency to provide them with a sense of purpose.

It's good that young people have engaged with the general election and the suggestion that they were all motivated by nothing other than financial self-interest is undoubtedly simplistic. But, at the same time, it's patronising to heap so much praise on young adults just for putting a cross on a piece of paper. Voting is hardly manning the barricades.

Let's be honest. The love young people are getting from celebrities and academics, campaigners and politicians, is not just for making that cross: it's for putting it in the right box. Young people might have been least likely to vote, but they were most likely to vote Labour. In this regard, young people have done as they were told.

Describing the youth vote as a 'welling up of idealism' says more about the desperate projections and wishful thinking of jaded politicians than it does about young people. Voting might be a good place to start, but political engagement is about more than just standing in line every few years.

Many different factors no doubt contributed to a majority of young people choosing to vote Labour and not all of them are necessarily radical. Rather than idealism, voting Labour seems to signal a moral position. It's become a way of affirming you're a nice person.

The pitching of one generation against another, as if young people today have it uniquely bad in a way their parents and grandparents didn't, is actually very ugly. It's good that students question why they should pay for higher education - but they should remember that when university was free, far fewer people attended.

I hope that by the time the next election comes around, loads of 18 -24 year-olds turning out to vote is seen as normal. Maybe then we can stop seeing young people as a special group with interests distinct from and at odds with the rest of the population. After all, even eighteen year-olds have to grow up.