Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
Over three million young Britons will have come of age between the last general election and May 7th 2015, when the country next goes to the polls to choose a government. Last time around, there was almost a three-way dead heat in the battle for the first time vote, with Labour on 31 per cent just edging ahead of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on per cent.
A new poll of first time voters, one year ahead of the election, shows a significantly different picture.
Labour now leads the Conservatives by close to a 2-1 margin, 41 per cent to 22 per cent, while the Liberal Democrats share has collapsed dramatically to eight per cent, level with the Green Party, and behind UKIP on 10 per cent, according to a new YouGov poll. This surveyed 1000 voters aged 17-21, to mark the launch of British Future’s ‘Voice of a Generation’ project, which will explore what issues matter most to first time voters in the 12 months leading up to the general election.
None of the party leaders impress first time voters. By 58 per cent to 23 per cent, they say that David Cameron does not understand their concerns (net -35). Nick Clegg (-37) and Boris Johnson (-27) fare badly too. Ed Miliband does slightly better, still failing to understand, but by a narrower margin of 46 per cent to 32 per cent (net -14). The politicians do still have the edge for best Prime Minister over a selection of celebrity figures – with Ed Miliband (17 per cent), David Cameron (15 per cent) and Boris Johnson (15 per cent) preferred to Alan Sugar (12 per cent) or Russell Brand (12 per cent). Nick Clegg trailed on six per cent, level with Jamie Oliver, behind both Jeremy Clarkson (11 per cent) and Nigel Farage (nine per cent). Those who are certain that they will not vote did make Russell Brand their first choice, perhaps appropriately.
For the Conservatives, the poll presents the dilemma about how to bridge the distinct worldviews of the ‘deserters’ and the ‘joiners’. Chasing the older voters most likely to flirt with UKIP risks distancing the party from younger voters, who have a different worldview and priorities. The Conservatives have had a very clear focus on what they can do for older voters, as with the pension changes. This poll suggests that the electoral pitch to younger voters is currently less clear.
Young voters prioritise jobs as the number one issue which affects them personally, chosen by 45 per cent, ahead of education and training (37 per cent) and the state of the economy (36 per cent). This is reflected in their most important national issues, the economy (44 per cent) and unemployment (43 per cent) coming top. Education (31 per cent) ranks third, ahead of immigration (28 per cent), welfare (27 per cent) or health (24 per cent).
This poll suggests Labour would gain from increasing the turnout of young voters. The Labour lead over the Conservatives shrinks to 15 points (40 per cent to 25 per cent) among the first time voters who are certain to vote, but Labour has a larger lead, around 22 points, among those who say that there’s a 70-90 per cent chance that they will vote in 2015.
Young voters were the strongest LibDem demographic in 2010, but the LibDems currently trail Nigel Farage even among this least Ukippish slice of the electorate. And the gloomiest finding for Liberal Democrats is that the party falls even further, from 8 per cent to just 5 per cent, among those young voters who are certain to turn out, with the Greens ahead of them on nine per cent and UKIP on 12 per cent. This suggests that the tuition fees u-turn mattered most to the more highly engaged.
The ability of the LibDems to defend the seats it currently holds may depend, in part, on whether its incumbent MPs can buck this national trend in their own constituencies. These national poll findings suggest that the first time vote may well prove to be particularly open and up for grabs in LibDem-Conservative marginals, but it may be a challenge for both sides to persuade first time voters of the value of backing a candidate who has a chance in the constituency race.
This may also explain why strongly pro-European LibDem campaign is struggling in the European elections. The party itself is simply very unpopular with the youngest voters, to whom an explicitly pro-European argument would be more likely to appeal. Only three out of ten young people say they will definitely vote in the European elections. On European election voting intentions, Labour (32 per cent) lead Ukip (21 per cent) with the Conservatives and the Greens tied on 16 per cent each, and the LibDems on 8 per cent.
If the election is as close as many commentators anticipate, first time voters could have a significant impact, particularly in marginal seats. But this depends on how many choose to vote.
41 per cent told YouGov that they would definitely cast their vote, a broadly similar proportion to the 44% of first time voters who turned up in 2010. That suggests that 1,350,000 first time voters will turn out, while around two million sit it out, leaving first time voters under-represented in the electorate: 60 per cent of all voters say that they will definitely vote, including 75 per cent of the over-65s.
In an ageing society, young voters punch below their weight, though a further one-in-five young voters rate the chance of their casting a ballot at between 7-9 out of 10. This group – amounting to 700,000 first time voters, who are thinking about using their vote, but probably more likely not to – would significantly close the turnout gap if they were to turn up.
Scottish first time voters in this poll appear to be considerably more politically engaged: 62 per cent of respondents aged 17-21 in Scotland said they would definitely vote, just ahead of the British average across all age groups. This finding seems to indicate a high level of political engagement in Scotland during the current referendum campaign, in which the franchise has been extended to those aged 16-18. A referendum to decide an issue of fundamental importance is clearly one way of demonstrating that politics matters.
So as well as a challenge for the main political parties, who will need to compete for the votes of the 1.3 million or more who will turn up, there is a challenge here for Britain’s youngest citizens too. Not voting may show that they are disaffected, but it’s the least likely way to get politicians to listen.
Both the Conservatives and Labour are probably confident that they have a base of around one-third of the electorate each. With each struggling to expand beyond that, the share that candidates take of new entrants to the electorate will help to decide the most marginal seats.
The parties also have a long-term interest in engaging the voters who are entering the electorate: we may live in an ageing society, but many of the voters who are eligible for the first time in 2015 will be around to vote in the next twelve or fifteen general elections. Whether these future voters can be persuaded that voting matters will have a major impact on democratic legitimacy and participation levels across the decades to come.