SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

How big was the youthquake?

Among the many striking images on election day last June, some of the first to cast doubt on the alleged ‘foregone conclusion’ of a substantially increased Tory majority, were those of snaking queues outside polling stations – queues full of young faces. Perhaps they hinted that Labour might do slightly better than thought, some reporters nervously suggested. Most hastened to add that polls still pointed to an overwhelming Tory win.

The previous evening, Jeremy Corbyn had addressed a buzzing, excitable and strikingly youthful crowd in Islington, north London. Their football-fan-like chant – amplified months later by 200,000 people who flocked to Glastonbury festival’s pyramid stage to listen to a politician – had been the soundtrack as Corbyn toured the country to speak to rallies of thousands.

These events were routinely dismissed by those making authoritative sounding claims to understand the business-of-winning-elections. We were told they represented enthusiasm among a small band of ‘faithful’ Corbynistas, not a wider appeal. Besides, while the young might not like the Tories, they would never turn out and vote in large enough numbers to make a difference.

As soon as the exit poll was announced, the capitalist establishment’s search to find an explanation for this ‘baffling’ turn of events began in earnest. We were not so perplexed. On 18 April, the day Theresa May announced her intention to go to the polls, the Socialist Party wrote on its website that, with a bold approach offering a clear anti-austerity alternative and socialist policies, Corbyn could go on to win. It was this analysis, not the sneering dismissal of the right-wing commentariat or the gloomy pessimism of figures like Owen Jones that was ultimately confirmed on 8 June.

In the aftermath of the election, one aspect that began to be highlighted was the role played by young people in helping to generate this political earthquake. Indeed, the importance of youth to Corbyn’s success merited the inclusion of a new word in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘youthquake’. Anecdotal evidence was quickly backed up by polling. Sky News Data indicated that 66% of 18-24 year-olds had voted Labour, up from 43% in 2015. Initial polling also suggested a rise in youth turnout. One company suggested a large 16-point increase since 2010.

However, a recent report by the long-standing British Election Study, ‘Tremors but No Youthquake’, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, suggests things were not so clear. It certainly qualifies some of the early polling regarding the changes in youth turnout. Unlike the initial polls, which relied on the self-reporting of participants about their behaviour, this study compared what people said about whether or not they voted with the records made at polling stations of who actually cast a ballot, the official marked register. This helps to correct people’s tendency to over-report having voted.

The survey was also based on door-to-door polling. This is considered to be a better method for achieving representative samples, particularly of non-voters as those who do not vote are less likely to take part in telephone or internet polls. For this reason, they provide a more accurate picture of turnout when compared with those conducted soon after the election. They show there was not a substantial change in the numbers of young people voting in 2017 when compared with 2015.

The authors do point to a small but marked increase in voting among those aged 25-40 – the generation now struggling with the perfect storm of student debt, a housing crisis and falling wages. They also acknowledge that, once you get down to the specific age brackets, their sample sizes are relatively small, with relatively big margins for error. So an increase or decrease of a few percentage points is not ruled out by this study. But what it does demonstrate is that there was not a transformative change in the numbers of young people taking part.

A healthy distrust of all polls, particularly in the light of their failure to accurately measure the mood prior to the 2017 general election, Brexit referendum or US presidential contest – just a few examples – is now common among many working-class and young people. Rightly so. The presentation of this study in the media as ‘disproving’ the whole notion of a youth surge is an exaggeration as it is based on a single measure – turnout – and discounts the wider picture, including who young people voted for. The report acknowledges, almost in passing: "What we do corroborate, however, is the increasing relationship between age and vote choice between the 2015 and 2017 election". It later says that "young voters are the most distinctively Labour group of voters".

Nonetheless, this study indicates that, just as in other age groups, there is a layer of people who remain sceptical about Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps taking an ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ attitude to promises such as free education or £10 an hour, which excited so many. It highlights that the youth surge we saw in 2017 was only a glimpse of what could potentially be mobilised. This underlines the importance of those who have been enthused by Corbynism getting organised and activated. As well as building a movement to kick out the Tories, it is necessary to fight to make sure Jeremy Corbyn implements the policies that have won him such support, despite the pressure his government would face from the capitalist class as a whole.

Perhaps among the reasons that the ‘phantom youthquake’ narrative seems more plausible now than in the immediate aftermath of the election are the questions posed by the current situation: if there was a youthquake where is it now? What has happened to this freshly politicised generation? The energy and enthusiasm seen on display in Islington or at Glastonbury were not ghostly apparitions. But what lead has been given to those who participated?

What if Corbyn had followed up his Shelley quote at Glastonbury with a concrete call to action for the here and now? What if he had used that platform to argue that students should organise mass protests in the autumn to demand free education, with the aim of toppling the Tories? What if he had called on young workers to organise in trade unions, to mobilise in the struggle for £10 an hour, to fight for strike action to demand decent pay and working conditions?

These were the kinds of ideas being raised by the Socialist Party and Socialist Students. They gained a wide echo among the young people we discussed with, including those on the protests that followed in June and July. Even without Corbyn making a direct call, if other forces – the National Union of Students or, crucially, trade union leaderships – had been prepared to mobilise their members in an all-out confrontation with the government, the Tories could already have been swept aside.

Instead, the lack of leadership has led to a large amount of disorientation among young people. Momentum’s policy of continuing to assert that it is possible to ‘square the circle’ – that it’s not necessary to conduct a determined struggle against the right, and that there is not an irreconcilable difference between pro-cuts Blairites and working-class Corbyn supporters – has contributed to the failure of the left to make substantial gains within many of Labour’s youth structures. Labour students recently elected a host of right-wingers to leadership positions, for example. This provides a stark contrast with the real views of the majority of students, including those who joined Labour to back Jeremy Corbyn.

Nonetheless, the potential for young people to move quickly into struggle remains. When given a focus, most recently building solidarity with the University and College Union strike, students have been prepared to fight. There remains the real possibility of an explosion of struggle from below, even without a clear lead being given.

The Socialist Party and Socialist Students are striving to organise and mobilise the youthquake generation. The weak, divided Tory government is extremely vulnerable to the pressure of mass movements. Our task is to make 2018 the year of a new, even more wide-reaching youthquake, the year of a huge movement to bring down the Tories and fight not just for a Corbyn-led government, but for decisive, socialist change.

Claire Laker-Mansfield

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