Don't make crude assumptions about young people's attitudes to the EU

Until recently, young people were one of Britain's most Eurosceptic demographics.

Damian Hockney
5 August 2016
young ukip.jpg

Young UKIP members. Image: Young UKIP, fair use.

It has become a mantra that, as a matter of natural course, younger people are pro-EU and that therefore the future looks bright for the Remain camp. This is not reflected either in the recent history of UK voting or opinion polling, or indeed of current surveys in other EU countries.

The unmentioned story of the EU referendum is that to win it, the Leave camp had to alienate one surprisingly eurosceptic age group over a very short period. The 18 to 24-year-old voter.

The casual and almost unchallenged assumption that the young are ‘bound’ to be pro-EU is belied by very recent statistics. As I myself pointed out in a piece I wrote for openDemocracy only three years ago, at that time the youngest age group was second only to the oldest age group in its support for UKIP, an observation based upon a long term compiling of the opinion polling done by YouGov.

In the 2012 YouGov survey(pdf) of attitudes regarding a referendum on EU membership the young would vote 42% to Leave, and 32% remain (the rest ‘don’t know’ or wouldn’t vote). 

But it is pretty clear that the group did split 3 to 1 in favour of Remain in the actual vote. Dramatically different to the intentions being trailed only a short time before.

Turned off by Leave focus

It is surely the case that the younger voter was specifically turned off by the focus on immigration and, possibly more self-interestedly, in the fear that this would impact on their own desire to travel. Whatever it was, it is interesting the degree to which clips on social media tend to often feature the young voter’s fear of not being able to travel. This video at around 5.30 sums up the point quite well.

Quick fire journalistic speculation has dealt in simplistic logics about ‘young people’ – they like to travel…see a future without borders…want to live and work in harmony with all our great friends ‘in Europe’…don’t like the anti-immigrant undercurrents etc. Etc. However, this idealised version is belied by the immediate past history of sudden alteration in views, which of course could swing back just as easily to opposing the EU.

The cringe-making Youtube clips and social media comments by young voters which have flooded the internet or may be fun for committed Leavers, but they are worth looking at in a detached and understanding way to see how the Leave camp was perceived by that group.

Class and money

There is also the awkward matter of class, backing up the title of John Harris’s Guardian piece the day after the vote “If you’ve got money you vote in, if you haven’t got money you vote out” – I hope this is not seen as insulting but most of the young in the Youtube clips or interviewed on marches sound like they are privately educated and therefore from considerably richer-than-average backgrounds. Harris indeed pointed to dismissive twentysomethings with a sense of superiority, and a type of class war. The voice of working class 18-24s voters not working for political parties or for pressure groups is not so audible.

As a former Vice Chair of UKIP, until just over a decade ago, one of my tasks had been to talk in schools and colleges about the EU. The students’ views were the same as those that drew me to the eurosceptic cause in the first place and generally they were strongly eurosceptic. The worries about organisations like Europol and its immunities, issues around democracy and accountability and corruption etc. Immigration and potential restrictions on movement were never ever mentioned.

The drift away by the young occurred in the run-up to the European elections which UKIP ‘won’ in Britain (meaning they got the most votes). By this point, in any event, polling showed that it would not be the younger voter that would deliver UKIP its historic victory in 2014. By this point, as well, the message about immigration had strongly hit home.

Different view in other EU countries

The simplistic idea that the EU is ‘bound to be’ popular with younger people is not reflected across all other EU countries. The rise of very varied anti-EU parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy (regularly leading the polls or equalling the government party) and the more troubling Golden Dawn in Greece have been achieved with large and committed support from the very youngest voters. For a few years now, figures in respected research show the youngest age group being the strongest supporter of, say, Golden Dawn in Greece (see page 555 here).

According to Reuters, quoting a September 2015 opinion poll done by Alco, Golden Dawn had by that stage worryingly become the party of first choice for the 18-24s. Stats from the respected Friedrich Ebert Foundation should alarm those commentators who have reported uncritically the young Remainer argument that older voters have acted unfairly in voting Leave and that their votes somehow should not be seen to count in the same way. Step aside all but Golden Dawn in Greece, then, on that basis? “Tomorrow belongs to us?” as the now-discredited song has it.

This support appears to have grown again considerably since Tsipras and the left in general in Greece capitulated to the EU during 2015 and simply did the EU’s bidding on acting as hardline enforcers of austerity, having achieved a clear mandate through elections and referendum to do the opposite. 

The stats on Page 5 of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) 2013 paper on Italy also make sobering reading for anyone who wishes to luxuriate in the undoubtedly reasonable argument in the UK about “graduates and the young supporting Remain and the not-so-educated more on the Leave side”. The Italian situation appears to demonstrate the mirror opposite.

Insular British commentary

It is within these striking differences, and the insularity of British commentary taking refuge in simplistic and hopeful views, that surely lies a key to the referendum result. Self interest. While M5S, and alas Golden Dawn, have created an impression as modern, youthful and in-touch parties, inspiring their young voters to actually turn out, the Remain camp in the UK ran a Project Fear awkward and turgid campaign, trying to shore up inconsistencies with a barrage of claims and insinuations about war and financial collapse that were quite extreme and difficult to believe. I dislike the word ‘lie’ because it polarises and is intended to end discussion, demonise, implying full access to an opponents’ mind: the Leave campaign simply focused hard on its core voter ignoring the young.

The issues which might inspire younger voters to support Leave appeared to be all but absent from the campaign and certainly were not a priority. It meant that the second most eurosceptic voter group deserted, and those that did vote surely took Leave at what they assumed was their word – that there would be dramatic restrictions in freedom of movement if they won. But because of the turnout stats, this would appear to have been a sound strategic move by Leave.

And having won the referendum, it is now a key task for the Leave camp to make sure that they win back round the younger voter. If it is all as simple as convincing them that they can still go skiing or to Thailand on their gap years, and that Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage won’t be beastly to foreigners, then it should be a fairly easy task. Well, it should be.




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