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Cameron's purge of young voters from the electoral register could cost him the referendum

The UK government changed the voter registration system, removing thousands of younger voters from the roll. Now, these are the people Cameron will rely on in the European referendum.

Luke James
4 April 2016

In pro-EU Hackney, there's been a 6% slump in registration

David Cameron has spoken of his “fear” that Britain will vote to break with Brussels because of a low turnout. The Prime Minister’s sleep patterns will not have been helped then by Sunday’s Observer poll that put the Leave campaign ahead by 4 points.

The poll also found that the group most supportive of remaining part of the EU are people in the 18-34 age group. Remain campaigns will say they have the future on their side. But as Freddie Sayers, YouGov’s editor-in-chief, says “the single most important driver of turnout is age.” And over 65s are more both more likely to be eurosceptic and more likely to vote. The Observer poll found 52 per cent of younger people were certain to vote, compared to 81 per cent of older voters. So Cameron now depends on the people least likely to have voted for his Conservative government to keep him in Downing Street. But crudely partisan attempts to make it more difficult for Labour and other left-wing parties to mobilise their supporters against the Conservatives may now come back to haunt him.

The Government’s rush to implement Individual Electoral Registration (IER) – against expert advice to phase-in the policy over a longer period – has knocked more than 800,000 people off the electoral register over the last year. The House of Commons Library warns: “Local authorities with high concentration of students appear to have been more affected by IER as their registers decreased more significantly than the average.” Fewer young, poor and left orientated voters on the electoral register is likely to help the Conservatives in local and national elections on May 5, as well as skewing the soon-to-be redrawn boundaries of parliamentary constituencies to their advantage.

In the context of the European referendum though, that is a substantial number of likely Remain votes lost. The changes to electoral registration also puts Remain at a geographic disadvantage. Five of the ten top Europhile locations in Britain are London boroughs, according to YouGov. But London has lost the highest number of voters, with 394,000 falling of the register since the 2012 Mayoral election. In Hackney alone, which was the eighth most pro-EU place in of Britain, there has been a 6 per cent slump in voter registration. A double victory for Conservative Mayoral candidate and Brexiteer, Zac Goldsmith, but more bad news for Remain.

Astonishing actions from a Prime Minister depending on the Labour party, trade unions and wider left to turn their voters on June 23 to keep him in Downing Street. Even for those registered to vote, Cameron’s re-negotiation has made it more difficult to mobilise the left in support of the Remain campaign. He spent months flirting with the inclusion of opt-outs from workers’ rights in his “competitiveness” agenda. And the meat of the Brussels take away he served to predictably unsated Tory MPs was an in-work benefits cuts for EU citizens in Britain. 

Unite general secretary Len McClukskey has said: “I will not be voting for David Cameron’s renegotiation package – a deal designed to protect the financial interests in the City of London which control the Conservative party and to pander to anti-migrant and anti-welfare sentiment.” Polling released by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) confirms both a lack of knowledge and enthusiasm for the EU referendum among the left and working class. Some 44 per cent of left-wing voters feel “poorly informed” about the EU referendum, while just 16 per-cent feel well informed.

That compares to 36 per cent of right-wing voters who feel poorly informed and 26 per cent who feel well informed. When it comes to class, 36 per cent of ABC1 professionals say they are “very interested” in the referendum compared to just 27 per cent of working-class C2DE respondents. Overall just one in six feel well informed about the issues surrounding the referendum. Bracing us for the low turn out that the Leave campaign crave, ERS chief executive Katie Ghose said there was a “clear link between how well informed people feel and their likelihood to vote.” There is a perfect storm of disenfranchisement, disengagement and disillusionment that will create the conditions for Brexit. And the evidence shows that, through unintended consequences of his own actions, David Cameron is steering us straight into its eye.

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