More than one million young people registered to vote during the election campaign. Read that one more time. And a couple more. And one more for luck. Has it sunk in yet? Because I'm one of those young people myself, and I still don't quite believe it. After the dismal youth turnout figures of recent years this sudden spike in political engagement among the young seems to me to be a phenomenon. But what brought this sudden change about?
Young people are still cast aside in the political system as a result of appearing to be disengaged. Parties do not want to make policies for us because we will not win them any votes, and then young people do not have anything to vote for and thus we end up being erased almost entirely. But what if, for once, our votes did matter? The SNP gave us a chance in 2014 when it decided to let 16 and 17 year-olds vote in the Scottish independence referendum, which means I and many other young voters in Scotland have actually been voting for some time. In Scotland, the young do not appear to be bored of politics just yet, but this does not account for the drastic improvement across the rest of the UK.
I discovered not long ago that Jeremy Corbyn had become the first leader of a major UK political party to make a Snapchat account. It seems like Labour is trying to meet young people on their own level. This made me wonder if social media has been the main catalyst for this change in voting behaviour. Not only do people have access to more information, but so much of it is also easier to understand and makes better use of multimedia like videos and infographs. This is ideal for first-time voters and has helped young people to understand the complex, corrupt and often frightening world of politics.
I wanted to test the true extent of this influence myself, and so took to Twitter. I set up a poll asking 18-25 year-olds to indicate who they voted for in the general election. Of 1,388 responses, the results were as follows: 39.8% voted Labour, 10.4% voted for the Conservatives, 34.5% voted SNP (clearly my poll failed to reach far below the border) and the other parties, including the Greens, Lib Dems, DUP and UKIP, shared the remaining votes almost equally.
Of course, there are limitations with this sort of information gathering: it is impossible to be sure that people are being honest about their age and how they voted, but I think the results quite accurately reflect how you would expect young people to vote, i.e., the vast majority of the votes went to Left-leaning parties, which accounts for Labour's active encouragement of young people to vote and the Tories failing to make a comment on the issue.
Certainly the numbers themselves are also limited: they cannot account for why these young people voted the way they did. I spoke to some of the respondents to my poll to dig a little deeper. Eighteen-year-old Emma said her main reason for voting SNP was to support Scottish independence as well as her feeling that the party listened to young people's voices. This is certainly hard to deny considering what is probably the party's most appealing policy: the abolition of tuition fees. Strangely, none of the people I interviewed actually mentioned this as being a factor.
What was mentioned by the vast majority was 'tactical voting'. In the run-up to the election, websites appeared with the purpose of informing people how to vote in their constituency in order to oust the Tories. I do confess that one website convinced me to vote differently in my constituency because I had no idea that the SNP's hold of the seat was so tenuous. Emma had also taken some online quizzes that are supposed to inform you of which party you should vote for according to your views. But, she said, it didn't particularly have any impact on her: '[they] affirmed what I'd already worked out – so whilst they didn't determine who I was voting for they made me more confident in that decision.' The others responded with similar answers. So, perhaps these accessible online tools didn't really have much of an impact at all when the majority of those taking them had already made up their minds.
So where do we all get our opinions from? Almost all of those I spoke to happened to vote the same way as their parents and did admit that they were influenced by them through taking part in political discussions at home. One Labour voter, Izzy, told me about her frequent political conversations with her mum: 'Watching the news together is awful because we spend more time pausing and discussing it than actually watching.' We inherit so much from our parents that this is not really much of a surprise. Often we share very similar views or deliberately adopt entirely different ones to rebel.
I did wonder, now that more conversations are taking place among young people about politics, if peer influence might be a factor. The vast majority of my friends at university are Left-leaning. In fact, all are, except for just one. A rare species among the young, liberal university crowd, my friend Josh roams the campus as a lone wolf, swatting away the persistent pro-Left influences. According to my poll, Josh belongs to a small minority of 10%. 'I do think it's generally frowned upon to be at university and have right-wing views,' he tells me. He also thinks that social media had a negative effect on Tory voters overall, and he felt that he was more influenced by preferring May over Corbyn along with specific stances that the party had taken on terrorism, Trident and Brexit.
One of my interviewees, Izzy, published a video series on YouTube covering various aspects of the election campaign. I asked her what her intention was: 'To bring politics to people who may not necessarily be interested in politics...There was the potential for my videos to reach people who may not have engaged otherwise; in a narcissistic way, people who were interested in me rather than politics.'
did her videos have any effect? 'Yes! I am absolutely honoured to say that someone commented saying I had persuaded them to vote Labour tactically rather than Lib Dem.' But is Izzy convinced that social media had a major influence? 'Yes, because it's something a lot of people can't ignore as it'll be popping up all over their various feeds. No, because that requires people to be using the internet regularly and for their timeline algorithms to favour politics. Traditional methods ensure you reach everyone. And I think people are more likely to believe/trust traditional methods as a lot of people are aware of the easy proliferation of fake news online.' Social media provides information for those with a pre-existing interest in politics, but perhaps does little to encourage new voters.
Despite being stereotyped as a generation of soulless social media-worshipping zombies, it turns out that we are actually not really influenced by anything drastically different from our parents. Conversations with family, individual preferences, policy appeal and tactical voting are the forces at play here. Organic and free interaction between the young and old is truly the only way to really engage new voters. Though it is undeniable that the internet has made information far more accessible and is fuelling these conversations, it has done little in reality to change young people's views.
Labour's persistent encouragement probably also played a part, and certainly many young voters were moved by Corbyn's fist-pumping campaign, though not all voted for his party. The spike in engagement during the general election may really come down to just a simple matter of positive encouragement coming from the back of recent referendums. Although the outcome of the election did not really feel like a clear triumph for either side, one group that did emerge victorious was, for once, the young, and that is more than I could have hoped for.