Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party is likely to determine Labour’s electoral strategy going into 2020. While Corbyn’s chances of winning the next General Election do not seem to have weighed heavily on the minds of his supporters, now that he has won, many of those inspired by ‘Corbynmania’ are hoping that a coalition of former SNP, Green and non-voters can help them to win in 2020. A recent LabourList survey found that most readers preferred that the party focus is on winning over non-voters rather than Conservative voters.
Not all non-voters are young, but young people are consistently the least likely to turn out at General Elections. Indeed the UK’s turnout ‘gap’ between older and younger voters is the largest among OECD countries. Ipsos MORI estimates that despite efforts to court the youth vote, particularly from Labour (remember Miliband’s late night visit to Russell Brand’s home?), just 43 per cent of 18-24 year olds and 54 per cent of 25-34 year olds turned out to vote in May, compared to 78 per cent of the over-65s. It is these young, previously disengaged voters that many on Labour’s left hope can help the party to victory. But is this a feasible strategy? Could young people hold the keys to Downing Street in 2020?
To find out, I’ve analysed the 2015 election results in detail to find out what would have happened in 2015 had more young people voted. The results of this analysis should be caveated in three ways. First, certain important pieces of information – such as an age breakdown of those on the electoral register – simply don’t exist. Missing information has been estimated, and a detailed methodology of the model, including formulae for these estimations, is available on request. Second, for simplicity, new voters within the model are assigned parties based on hypothetical uniform shares of the vote at a country (England, Scotland and Wales) level. Thus, the model cannot account for particular surges for one party in particular constituencies. Third, the analysis looks back at the 2015 election, and thus its predictive power for 2020 is limited by the fact that the demographic make-up of different constituencies will change somewhat in the next five years.
Let’s imagine, first of all, that rather than the 49 per cent turnout estimated for 18-34 year olds as a whole, 66 per cent of that group had actually voted. That’s the overall (all ages) turnout rate for the 2015 election. And let’s imagine that all of those additional young voters had voted in a similar pattern to those who did vote. The British Election Study’s post-election survey data suggests this breaks down as follows: 37 per cent to Labour, 31.2 per cent to the Conservatives, 11 per cent to the Lib Dems, 7.9 per cent to the Greens, 6.6 per cent to UKIP and so on.
In this scenario, despite the influx of 1.7 million new voters, the election result changes only very slightly. The Conservatives still have a majority, albeit a smaller one, on 326 seats instead of 330. Labour gain three seats (Croydon Central, Derby North and Gower), and the SNP gain one (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale).
If we imagine that turnout among 18-34 year olds had been as high as 73 per cent, which is the estimated turnout rate for those aged 35 and over, the result is almost identical; Labour gain one additional seat, Vale of Clwyd. This officially denies the Conservatives a majority in the House of Commons, although with Sinn Fein and the Speaker’s abstentions, they would be able to pass bills without the support of other parties.
Even if we go all the way up to 100 per cent – if every registered young person had turned out to vote, all that changes is that the SNP and Labour gain a couple more seats each from the Lib Dems (including Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency). Despite an extra 5 million young voters, the Conservatives remain on 325 seats. So far, focusing on turning out more young people seems to be a dead end for Labour.
Sceptics might argue that this misses the point. If it is Labour’s campaigning that inspires more young people to vote, presumably more of these new voters will choose Labour. So let’s consider what might have happened if, say, Brand’s following made up a significant proportion of young people, and his last minute message had cut through in time.
Scenarios 4 and 5
At 100 per cent youth turnout, a five-point swing among the new voters from the Conservatives to Labour (compared to the vote shares in figure 1) does produce a real shift in the results. The Conservatives are on 313 seats, and thus unable to govern without the support of other parties. The Lib Dems are on just five seats, so the 2010-15 Coalition parties wouldn’t have enough between them either. Scenario 5 – a ten-point swing – achieves little more, with the Conservatives on 311 and Labour still languishing on 252, still less than they managed in 2010.
Even in very unlikely scenarios – the most optimistic for Labour – the prospects do not look good. I assigned 70 per cent of new voters to Labour under the 100 per cent youth turnout scenario, with 15 per cent to the Tories in England, and 5 per cent to the Lib Dems, UKIP and Greens respectively. In Scotland and Wales, the Tories were assigned 10 per cent, with the SNP and Plaid picking up the other 5 per cent in each case. Here, the Conservatives are still the largest party, on 291 seats, with Labour on 279. For the first time, though, Labour could find themselves in Government, with 331 seats available in a pact with the SNP.
A youth engagement strategy can theoretically get Labour to a majority. If every single eligible young person turned out to vote, and every single additional young person voted for Labour, they would have their majority. By one seat. That’s the best possible outcome of a youth-focused Labour electoral strategy, and while it’s a mathematical possibility, it’s simply not going to happen. Moreover, it’s an incredibly inefficient strategy: Labour would have a 9-point lead nationally (41.5 per cent to the Tories’ 32.5 per cent). That’s similar to their position following the 2001 election, only without the accompanying 167-seat majority.
It’s worth explaining exactly why this happens, because it is surprising just how little impact these votes make. For a start, of the 5 million new voters Labour gets in this hypothetical scenario, over 2 million are entirely wasted, as they just increase the majority in seats that are already held by Labour. Just 2.5 million fall in seats the Conservatives won in 2015. On average, that amounts to around 7,500 votes in each of the 330 Conservative seats. The limited impact on seat numbers is down to the fact that the Conservatives’ majority over Labour is greater than 7,500 in 254 of these seats. Similarly, in Scotland, where the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats, Labour gains just under 500,000 new voters. While the vast majority of these fall in SNP-held seats, on average this is only around 8400 new votes per SNP-held seat, which is less than the SNP’s current majority in 40 out of their 56 seats; the SNP’s average majority is closer to 10,000.
Again, sceptics might say this hypothetical scenario misses the point. A strategy that engages young people would also encourage existing Green, SNP and Plaid voters to put their faith in Labour. There is some truth to this, but it’s not as simple as some would claim. Young people are more pro-immigration, more pro-EU, and more socially liberal on a range of issues, but on others cannot easily be characterised as ‘left wing’, as we tend to see those parties. In Tune In, Turn Out, for example, we found that many young people, particularly young women, hold tough attitudes towards welfare . Young people in the latest British Election Study survey were less in favour of income redistribution than older respondents, and levels of support for austerity were similar to those of older voters. While young voters generally perceived themselves as slightly more left-wing than older voters, young voters who didn’t vote in 2015 were actually slightly more centrist than their voting peers.
Thus, persuading young non-voters to turn out for Labour while bringing in Green, SNP and Plaid voters at the same time is no simple task. However, one could argue that such a combination remains more achievable than, say, winning back Scotland and English Conservative-held marginals at the same time.
‘United left’ scenario 1
Therefore, I changed the model to a hypothetical scenario where the four clearly left-of-centre parties were united, for example through a pact or a merger, or simply by all existing Green, SNP and Plaid voters united behind Labour. As I showed in a recent piece for the Spectator, such a scenario without any additional voters would still leave the Conservatives as the largest party. Here, I reverted to the 100 per cent youth turnout model, applying new young voters in the same proportions as their peers who did vote, which seems reasonable given the British Election Study attitudes data. In this ‘united left’ scenario, with every registered young person turning out, Labour are 6 short of a majority, on 320 seats.
‘United left’ scenario 2
Finally, in this version of the model, it is at last theoretically possible for Labour to win a big majority with this strategy. If every Green, SNP and Plaid voter went to Labour and every eligible young voter turned out and voted Labour, and assuming they didn’t lose any votes elsewhere in the process, Labour would win 398 seats, with 49.5 per cent of the vote. Theoretically possible, but I’d suggest very unlikely.
There is little in these findings to cheer those who hope Labour can find a way to win an election without appealing to Conservative and UKIP voters. No one disputes that power without principles is as pointless as principles without power, but the wishful thinking has to stop. If Labour is to win again, it has to win over these voters.
It does not necessarily follow that the way to do so is to move to the right, or that Labour could never win on a leftist platform. It may be true, as some claim, that moving closer to your rivals, and accepting the premises of their criticisms of your platform, may not encourage people to vote for you. This is the ‘austerity versus austerity-lite’ argument. We can’t know for certain whether greater divergence or convergence is likely to be most effective, but I will say that the Conservatives’ UKIP strategy – moving closer to them on immigration and the EU referendum – does seem to have paid off electorally. UKIP’s gains in Conservative-held marginals were lower than the average, lower than in Labour-held marginals and lower than in Conservative safe seats.
On the other hand, it is not true to say that young people don’t matter electorally. Just because young non-voters on their own can’t hand Labour a victory in 2020, that doesn’t mean winning them over can’t be part of a broader successful strategy that also includes winning over Conservative and UKIP voters. Moreover, getting some of the 38 per cent of young people who voted Conservative or UKIP in May to vote Labour could help considerably.
It is also important to caveat these findings by noting that the analysis includes registered voters only. Young people remain far more likely to be off the register than older people. Registration efforts –from the Government, councils, political parties, charities and campaign groups – remain an important tool in increasing the electoral power of young people.
Above all, Labour requires an approach that treats Conservative and UKIP voters with respect. If the Labour leadership, as well as the wider movement, treat this mass of the electorate with contempt, as morally suspect, or as ignorant or stupid, the party will keep losing elections.
However they do it, Labour must learn to live with the fact that lots of people voted Conservative and UKIP, and seriously think about what Labour can offer them.