19 October 2015

How young people could secure an easy victory for the IN campaign

By Hugo Winn

The campaign to keep Britain in the EU got off to a bang last week. The message was simple: Britain is safer, stronger and has greater opportunities as part of Europe.

Perhaps no group benefits more from the opportunities of being part of Europe than young people. People aged under 26 years old in Britain today are the first true European generation. Born after the Maastricht treaty of 1993 they are comfortable with travelling, studying and working anywhere in Europe. Unlike their parents they are more likely to book a long weekend in Magaluf than Brighton.

They have never known what their country looks like outside Europe. Nor do they particularly want to. According to every commissioned EU poll since Cameron released his ambition for an In/out referendum last year, young people have remained overwhelmingly in favour of Britain staying in the EU. YouGov currently puts under 25 support for EU membership at 64%. Compare that to over 60s where only 43% want to remain a part of the union.

There are two reasons for this; First young people are more internationally exposed and internationally minded than older generations. The older you are in Britain today the more likely you are to make your local community and immediate family the centre of your world. Young people are part of a more global family who they communicate with online.

Technology has infused young people’s lives with a constant flow of global culture and media. You are far more likely to watch international programmes on Netflix after classes than British made programmes. Social scientists have noted for years an increasing focus on international issues amongst students. A trend that shows little sign of waning.

Second, immigration is less of an issue for young people today. Despite the warnings of many that young people’s jobs are at risk from immigration, including those made by the Prime Minister in 2013, young people have remained overwhelmingly in favour of immigration. When Channel 4 News went to interview sixth form students about immigration in a recent programme they found them unreceptive to the issue. “If the government says it’s affecting our generation, we are representing our generation and we say it’s fine,” said one sixth former.

All of this should be music to the IN campaign’s ears. Favourability numbers of 64% amongst any group are the kinds that make campaign teams extremely jittery. Yet despite this, there seems to have been little concerted effort to hunt out the youth vote. The reason for this is probably the belief that young people are an unreliable group to bank on come Election Day.

It is true that young people are unlikely to vote, though the number of under 25s who do so is up from 38% in 2005 to 58% this year. But, abstention amongst young people is not inevitable. Rather it is a product of the messages and options on offer. The Scottish referendum shows the potential for the mass mobilisation of young people in a second tier election: 69% placed their ballot during the referendum, a new record for the UK.

There are signs that the pro-Europeans are starting to taking the youth vote seriously. Putting a student on the panel at this week’s launch event of the IN campaign  alongside business leaders and security experts and the use of  June Sarpong to chair the event (even if this slightly backfired) was a smart move. But there is a huge amount that still needs to be done.

Frankly at this stage, failure to recognize their potential opportunities is the IN campaign’s biggest threat. I believe Gen Y is the silver bullet they are looking for.

Hugo Winn is a political consultant at Weber Shandwick specialising in campaign strategy and political risk.