I did not vote in the 2016 EU referendum. In fact, I am not even sure whether I was registered to vote, and the further we have slid into the political turmoil of recent months and years, the more embarrassing this has become to admit. In the lead-up to referendum I was entirely ambivalent, unaware of the significance of such a vote to our country’s future, and indeed, even when I woke up to a text from my mother exclaiming the result on the morning of the 24th of June, I simply shrugged. Yet between hung parliaments, the divergence of our political spectrum, and a string of parliamentary defeats for the government, I began to question: how did the campaigns of 2016 fail entirely to mobilise young people like myself? Why was there a negligence towards effectively engaging with the youth of the nation? How was it that I managed to be completely shielded from the gravity of a vote on European Union membership in the run-up to polling day? Over time I have realised it is both unfair and insincere to place blame entirely on the campaigns for what happened in 2016. Truthfully, upon scrutinising my eighteen-year-old self, I cannot deny I was unacceptably ignorant towards politics.
Estimates have stated that in the EU poll, a healthy 78% of the 65- to 74-year-old population showed up at the polling stations. I, however, belonged to a staggering estimated 47% of 18- to 24-year-olds who did not use their ballot paper that day. Similarly, turnout estimates for the 2017 general election suggest that more than 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds did not vote compared to 16% of over-70s. These figures are a demographic, democratic disaster. Partisan politics aside, a situation in which approximately half of enfranchised adolescents in the country do not care to exercise their democratic voice is deeply troubling. One can only imagine how different the political developments of the last four years may have been if not for young people’s self-imposed democratic deficit. We may not have been stuck in the Brexit deadlock which currently paralyses government and country, we may have avoided the problematic hung parliament of 2017, and looking back further yet, the results of the 2016 poll could have swung the other way entirely, altering the course of our political history.
The problem among young people is two-fold. Undoubtedly, politicians have a fundamental problem engaging young people in politics. Yet conversely, perhaps as a sector of society it is our own responsibility to spark each other’s interests, to understand the importance of political situations, and to keep informed on the UK’s economic and political developments. Multiple news outlets claimed that Boris Johnson and the Conservatives chose the 15th October as a provisional date for the imminent general election so as to restrict the student vote. The apparent logistical difficulty for those living away from home would, to Boris’ mind, guarantee a repeat of the demographic statistics from recent polls. Is this something we are willing to let continue?
Perhaps we, as a sector of society, have had enough of not getting our voices heard. Perhaps the time has come to engage more comprehensively with politics. Perhaps we are sick of hearing our peers obtusely asking us who John Bercow is. I realise three years on from the referendum that the burden lies with us. We need to actively encourage one another take an interest in having our say in the country’s democracy, yielding our ability to make a difference on issues that matter to us. This is unequivocally predicated upon us registering to vote.