Chin-up: How Young Voters Can Make the Best of Post-Brexit Britain

30/06/2016 09:57


"Britain votes for Brexit" roared the morning headlines. 10 weeks of grueling campaigning, claims and counterclaims, and accusations of lies and scaremongering had ended in Britain casting off on an uncertain and treacherous voyage.

But the headlines were misleading. "Britain" did not vote to leave the EU. Rather, the vote to leave was led by a distinct group of voters. And while they ultimately comprised a slim majority, 52%, it is right to acknowledge that this was a deeply divisive, rather than united, decision.

Leave and Remain voters were split by geography, class and education. But most of all, voters were divided by generation. A staggering 75% of voters aged 18-24 voted Remain compared with only 39% of over-65s, according to YouGov.

Social media reflected the anguish of young voters as we awoke to the Brexit result. Reaction ranged from disbelief and sadness to anger and petulance.

The latter end of this scale included the inevitable declarations of emigration (I understand Canada, Sweden and Mars are popular destinations) and outrage directed towards the grey vote, which many of my peers felt had dragged the result in favour of Leave.

One popular meme bitterly pointed out that the average elderly Brexiteer can expect to live with the consequences of the vote for many years fewer than a young Remainer.

This bitterness and anger, if not entirely edifying, is understandable. Young Britons have never begrudged European influence as much as older generations but prize the opportunities that EU free movement offers. Now they stand to lose this.

Brexiteers have breezily dismissed the anger of Remainers. "What is done is done", they chirp, "make the best of it!" While such sentiment is premature - we have only just been bereaved - it will prove to be the most productive approach in a post-Brexit Britain.

Beyond the referendum

How do we "make the most of it?" Easier said than done, but hardly impossible.

Firstly, we should not allow disappointment at the result of the referendum to turn into disdain for those who took the opposing side.

A leading explanation of the shock result was that the Leave vote had been supported by voters who felt that they had been left behind by globalisation and were being ignored by the political establishment.

Implying that this segment of the electorate is "thick" by reciting the Churchill "five-minute conversation" quote will only push them further away and help the populism that delivered Brexit flourish.

Secondly, we should avoid becoming disengaged ourselves. Our generation has always been hamstrung by our unwillingness to get involved in politics, beyond sharing the occasional sarcastic comment or meme on Facebook.

In particular, low voter turnout among our peers has left us partially disenfranchised. This has seriously handicapped our generation but never irreversibly so - the election cycle always offered a chance for redemption.

That has changed with the referendum. Analysis by Sky Data suggests that only 36% of voters aged 18-24 voted, compared to 83% of over-65s. This data is only an estimate but is backed up by Guardian analysis which shows that areas with a large population of young voters also had low turnout.

It would appear that it was the disaffection of young voters that lost the referendum, rather than the Eurosceptism of older voters that won it. If Britain loses access to the single market, this will be a costly but overdue lesson on the importance of voting. But this is surely better than learning nothing at all.

Events, dear boy

Fortunately, the post-referendum political turmoil creates the perfect opportunity for us to make our mark on post-Brexit Britain.

A leadership contest is underway in the ruling Conservative party and another may follow for Labour. Both will offer young Remainers a chance to support candidates who at the very least want Britain to negotiate continued access to the single market.

Most tantalising of all is the prospect of an early general election. When a new Conservative leader is selected, he (or she) may seek a renewed democratic mandate via a snap election.

That election may quickly turn into a 2nd referendum. The Lib Dems have pledged to ignore the outcome of the referendum; the SNP are in a similar position; Labour may follow suit, depending on the outcome of its leadership crisis. Victory for these parties could confer a democratic mandate that contradicts the referendum: the ultimate outcome is therefore highly unpredictable.

In any case, young campaigners and activists will play a central role.

It may be too late to change the eventual outcome of the referendum. But the opportunity for us to influence the terms of Brexit in the coming weeks, months and years are many.

We should use the immediate political crisis to take the long overdue step of becoming an electoral constituency to be reckoned with. In doing so we can help Britain, in future, avoid making the same sort of mistake that Brexit will prove to be.