In June 2017, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed a massive crowd from the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. To uproarious approval, he recited the words of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you: / Ye are many – they are few!” A young woman in the crowd held aloft a poster with the words “JC Hope” encased within a large red heart. Corbynmania had reached its zenith.
A year later, a YouGov poll suggested that the ‘youthquake’ voters credited with reinvigorating Labour during the 2017 general election were now the group showing the largest drop in support for the party. The poll also reported a decline in the support of young people aged 18-24 for a Corbyn premiership, down from 51 percent in January 2018 to 35 percent in November 2018. This year, a poll of Labour supporters aged 18-34 reported increasing frustrations regarding Corbyn’s handling of Brexit.
While the idea of a ‘youthquake’ is compelling and polling seems to indicate a drop in youth support for Labour, the reality is more nuanced. “In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 election, many people claimed that Jeremy Corbyn had mobilised previously disengaged young voters, and that they had turned out in droves to vote Labour,” Dr. Chris Prosser tells me. He is a co-director of the British Election Study which examines voting behaviour over the past fifty years. “The earliest of these claims seemed to be based on no evidence whatsoever – see this article for example – but the idea quickly gained traction and became something of a shibboleth amongst young Labour activists.”
Prosser points out that high quality election data takes time to gather, which is why it took six months for youthquake claims to be meaningfully challenged. Based on four “credible estimates” from studies on changes in 2017’s voter turnout, Prosser paints a complex picture: “We still don’t know exactly how much turnout amongst young people changed in 2017 and we never will, but all of these sources agree that any turnout increase amongst young people was much more modest than had been initially claimed – more of a ‘tremor’ than a ‘quake’.”
When it comes to polls, Prosser advises that they should be read “carefully”, pointing out that “the drop in Labour support might look bigger for young people in absolute terms, but that’s because there are more young Labour voters to start with.”
While polls and the youthquake narrative should be treated with caution, a sense of disillusionment was palpable amongst young former Labour members who spoke to VICE for this piece. Stefan Boscia, 27, an Australian journalist, joined the Labour Party in 2018 after finding the 2017 election “very exciting and refreshing”. He left earlier this year. “I joined when I moved to the UK last year, it was one of the first things I did when I moved over,” he says. “I didn't necessarily agree with all the policies and some of it was probably to the left of where I stand, [but] I still saw a lot of positive stuff coming out of it and I was happy to reconcile with that for what I saw as genuine change where it was needed.”
When I ask Stefan what ultimately made him leave Labour, he mentions the July Panorama investigation into anti-Semitism in the party. He also stresses that his desire to leave “was building for a while”, describing the atmosphere at party events he attended as “very toxic”. “I felt the party had jumped even more to the left of where I was,” he explains. “So I really didn’t feel any need to stay in it as it is right now.”
For some young former Labour members, the party’s longtime lack of clarity on Brexit was – until recently – also a major source of frustration. Tanya Arackal, 20, a political activist and student, joined Labour in 2015 when Corbyn was elected leader but left last year to campaign for the Lib Dems for a time. “I felt like [Corbyn’s] domestic policies really resonated with the youth,” she says when I ask what motivated her to join Labour. “I thought with his policies on the NHS and university fees, that it seemed like he really was for the many and not the few in comparison to the Tory government. But then I became increasingly frustrated with his stance on Brexit.”
Pointing out that 75 percent of young people voted to remain, Tanya describes Corbyn’s approach to Brexit as “very quiet”, adding, “I felt like he was ignoring his youth electorate for a long time”.
She welcomes the news that Corbyn will allow a people’s vote if Labour win the general election: “I think the people’s vote and bringing the final say back to the public will break the gridlock in parliament at the moment.”
Like Tanya, blogger Jessica, 22, joined the party in 2015 because of Corbyn’s vision. “He seemed to say all the right things when it came to taxes, wages, even the environment,” she tells me. “As a student working on minimum wage at the time, what he voiced was very appealing to me.” After growing disillusioned with the party’s ability to deliver on its promises, Jessica left.
Her frustration with Corbyn’s handling of Brexit is clear: “I think Labour promise too much with Brexit that they wouldn't be able to see through. At the end of the day, Britain voted to leave and I don't know many people who want a second vote.
“What happens if we have a people’s vote and it goes the other way? Do we just go round and round in circles? I was a remainer but now I just say get it done – it's embarrassing for us as a country.”
With the general election looming and polls predicting a Tory majority, the question of how Labour can win back young voters is an urgent one. Following the news that the party will allow a second referendum if they win, Tanya says that she will “probably” campaign for them again this time around: “I feel like, in terms of my friendship group, [Corbyn] backing the final say has really reversed the young people feeling quite disenfranchised with Labour.”
Tanya also mentions the need for the party to appeal to “more of a middle ground”, a sentiment shared by Stefan, who also raises the issue of anti-Semitism: “From a purely tactical point of view, they need to do more about anti-Semitism because that is really hollowing away, I feel, at a lot of young supporters and supporters generally. I think that they need to do more to bring in more moderates within the cabinet.”
While the polls appear to be telling one story, Dr. Prosser points out that as campaigning gets underway things are “rapidly changing”. The question of what exactly these changes will mean for Labour, the youth vote, and the future of the UK will be answered on the 12th of December.