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Supposedly Apathetic Millennials Are Not the Ones to Blame for Brexit

It was widely reported that just 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, but a new study shows it was more like 64 percent—the largest youth turnout in 25 years. What else did the media get wrong, and why?

Photo by Yasmin Jeffery

During the EU referendum campaign—remember that? It was the thing that happened just before the British political system became a weird episode of Celebrity Apprentice—it emerged that feelings about Brexit were split along generational lines. The 18- to 24-years-old overwhelmingly supported Remain, according to YouGov, by as much as 75 percent. Those over 65 voted to leave by around 60 percent.

After the election, it was widely reported that only 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds turned out to vote. Those workshy, lazy, bastards. In the post-Brexit analysis, it seemed like one of the big reasons the Leave campaign was successful was that older voters turned out in much higher numbers.

The blame game began quickly. The Independent ran a piece entitled "Young people—if you're so upset by the outcome of the EU referendum, then why didn't you get out and vote?" while the Guardian went with, "Young people are so bad at voting—I'm disappointed in my peers." Both pieces quoted the 36 percent figure as gospel.

But studies by Michael Bruter, professor of political science and European politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and his colleague, Dr. Sarah Harrison, have suggested that youth turnout was much higher. I spoke to Professor Bruter about the youth turnout figures and other crucial things people have misunderstood about this election.

VICE: Where did the thirty-six percent figure come from?
Michael Bruter: On election night, there was a figure published by Sky Data, which actually listed the turnout by age groups. That was the data that said eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds had a thirty-six percent turnout, but no one asked "where did that figure come from?"

Actually, it didn't come from a survey. It didn't come from any figures from the referendum in 2016. It came from figures from the general election in 2015, when people were asked, "Do you usually vote?" and "Do you always vote?" They used that data to predict turnout. Because there were no exit polls, people jumped on that figure and kept recycling it. Out of the blue everyone was saying, only a third of young people voted.

Now, there have been some surveys since, and most of them find out about sixty percent of young people aged eighteen to twenty-four voted, which is much closer to the average, but even that is wrong because most commercial surveys don't control for whether people are registered to vote or not. Turnout is the proportion of registered voters who actually decide to vote, versus the registered voters who decide not to.

So what was the youth turnout, according to your research?
I've just got the figures back from our other survey, which is from a fresh sample, and what we found is that turnout among voters eighteen to twenty-four was sixty-four percent. Now that is an estimate, because it's always an estimation, but it comes from an actual survey where people were asked whether they voted or not, and whether they registered or not. We also controlled for over-reporting of electoral participation, because people always have a tendency to tell you that they voted even if they did not. So even when you account for all of that, we find is that turnout among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds was about sixty-four percent. That would be the highest turnout among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds for the past twenty-five years.

Turnout among young people was sixty-four percent. That's the highest for any election for the past twenty-five years

This is a very different story to what we've been hearing.
Yeah, and this is a very important thing. That Sky data, they just took the answer from whether people voted out of nine out of ten or more on a zero to ten scale. They effectively confessed that it's not an actual turnout figure by any standard, just a prediction based on last year's data.

OK, to move beyond turnout—what were the major differences that you noticed between something like a general election or previous referendums and this referendum when it came to young voters?
I'd say that the biggest difference not just for young voters but for voters in general was the emotional reaction to the vote.

How can you measure people's emotional response?
One of the things we always measure, I know it might sound silly, but it's actually important, is whether people cried when they heard the result of the election. What we found is that in this particular referendum, thirty-two percent of people told us they either cried or had tears in their eyes when they discovered the result of the vote. A small proportion were crying out of joy, but a much larger number, because they were Remain voters, were extremely sad.

To give you a point of comparison, that's thirty-two percent, just for this referendum. The results we had before is that only twenty-four percent of people had ever cried at any point in their lives from anything related to an election. In other words, there was far more emotion in that referendum alone than was experienced by the entire population throughout their entire life, including thinking about very significant and fairly emotional elections like '45, '79, or '97, and things like that. I think that's one big difference.

The notion of disgust is something that is totally unprecedented in the UK. This referendum was more polarizing than the reelection of George W. Bush.

The second big difference is what happened in people's minds afterwards. Normally, after an election, people tend to be much more positive. Whether you're a winner or a loser doesn't make any difference; in general, people feel much closer to other citizens, more positive toward society. In this case, it didn't happen at all. In fact, what we found is that a very significant majority of people in both camps, Leave and Remain, have very negative feelings toward the other half of the country. They said they feel worried, gutted, sad, and angry.

Sadness is one thing, but I think the anger or the notion of disgust is something that is totally unprecedented as far as I know, at least in the UK. We had a little hint of that at some point in the US after some of the most polarizing elections, for instance the reelection of George W. Bush, but even that wasn't as polarizing as what we're getting in the UK with this referendum.

That goes against a lot of the common thinking about this issue, which is that the EU is a distant bureaucratic institution that most people don't care about.
I think that's more the way the media perceive it, but that's not right. We've done a lot of work on European identity and what it means for people to be European. People always think the UK is Eurosceptic. That's both true and false, in the sense that when we rank countries across the EU in terms of European identity we find that the UK has the largest proportion of people who don't feel European—but the UK also has the third-highest proportion of people who feel very European. There are more people feeling very European in the UK than in France or Germany, for instance.

That's kind of surprising. What else has the media missed in this election?
All the news was about the fact that Remain was the rational vote. It was the vote for people who didn't really care but would be reasonable. Leave was the more emotional vote. This is simply wrong. What we found was that both camps were very emotional. When people in general, but young people in particular, thought about leaving the EU, they weren't thinking about Brussels, the commission, the parliament, or some regulation or director. What they think about is effectively their rights as a citizen. So what they were saying was, "I'd miss the right to work around Europe or miss having a European passport," for instance.

Older voters would say things about having medical coverage when they travel, or being able to bring back whatever they want from holiday. For them, it was a much more consumer-based approach to the EU. For young people, it was a citizen approach. Almost as if somebody were trying to amputate part of their citizenship rights.

When you talk about feeling resentment or anger after the referendum, where is that anger aimed? At Cameron? At the processes of democracy? At the other side?
It's very much about the other side. So, for instance, we'll ask people, "Do you think the referendum is a good way of deciding on important questions?" and they still answer yes, so there is no rejection of the notion of referendums as a democratic tool.

Then we ask "how do you feel about people who voted differently to you," that's where we get about seventy percent of people saying they feel angry toward people who didn't vote like them. So, there is a notion of... it goes above anger. The two camps really dislike each other.

In your opinion then, was the Remain campaign focusing on the wrong issues? I don't think I ever once heard them talk about concepts of citizenship.
I think they did focus on the wrong issues. That's an opinion. It's not scientific—it's just my personal thoughts based on people's answers and everything, so it's sort of an educated analysis. But they talked about the wrong things, and they tried be completely rational when the voters were in a much more emotional mood. The big stakes for people was the notion of citizenship rights that they were going to lose. Particularly, that was important to people who were younger, lived in metropolitan cities, had the opportunity to travel more. It gave them the sense of freedom.

We also tried to work out whether people were voting for what's best for them or what was best for the country as a whole, and that's another thing the Remain didn't do right. People wanted to do what was best, not just for the country, but for the younger generations. And they didn't necessarily pick up on that.

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