UK General Election: Where the parties are appealing to young people (and where they are not!)

by Conor Brennan on 30 Apr 2015

Research released by the UK Electoral Commission in summer 2014 said that up to 7.5 million eligible people had not yet registered. Despite a major “use your vote” drive in recent weeks as the election campaign has swung into action, there will probably still be millions of voters who have effectively disenfranchised themselves from going to the ballot box on 7 May. The Commission has also estimated that, in the 2010 election, only 44% of 18-24 year-olds voted. So it would be fair to conclude that that there will be many young people who won’t vote on 7 May - a shame when, for most of them, it will have been their first opportunity to exercise their democratic prerogative.

But what of the young people who are on the electoral register? We have analysed the party manifestos to see what is on offer - tempting, interesting or relevant - for young people; and what also might be a turn-off.


Everyone loves apprentices

Members of the coalition have talked excitedly about the number of apprenticeships created under the last government. It is clear that the number of apprenticeships (including for 25 year-olds and over) did rise significantly between 2010/2015. Official figures demonstrate that the number of apprenticeship starts have roughly doubled year-on-year over the last five years, compared with the previous administration.

It is therefore no surprise to see all the main parties falling over themselves on the number of apprenticeships they will create over the next five years: the Conservatives say three million; Labour guarantees an apprenticeship for every school leaver with the grades (they also talk about refocusing spending away from low-level apprenticeships for older people); the Lib Dems claim they will double the number of business who take apprenticeships. There is less mention from UKIP, although the Greens also back more support for apprenticeships as part of their pitch for younger people.

This all-party support is striking. Whether it is a conscious effort to reach out to young people or (more likely) part of an attempt to promote a comprehensive pro-manufacturing strategy, is open to question. But at least the parties can credibly claim they are actively thinking about how best to get youngsters off on the right track once they leave school. Stop press; the Conservatives have just upped their offer, since their manifesto was published, by pledging to fund 50,000 new apprenticeships with the fines imposed on Deutsche Bank for interest rate rigging.

Housing is becoming more of a young person’s problem

The approach and emphasis from the main parties may vary, but this election may mark the point when the politicians recognised that Britain’s (especially the South-East) ever-spiralling property prices pose a major challenge for young people looking to make their way in the world. The Liberal Democrats’ “Rent to Own” proposal (where monthly rental payments help you steadily to buy a stake in a property and Help to Rent (loans on deposits) may be particularly appealing to the under-30s. Labour was initially less explicit- although its manifesto talks in primary colours about “our sons and daughters shut out of the housing market” - on support in this area. But the document details proposals to tackle exploitative landlords and to drive up standards in the rental sector. Since then, Labour has gone a good deal further with its proposal to introduce private sector rent controls - a market intervention which clearly has the under-40 bracket in mind.

The Conservatives have nodded to aspirant young buyers with their commitment to build 200,000 New Starter Homes exclusively for first-time buyers. Following publication of their manifesto, Labour have made a further pitch to this category with their offer to exempt first-time buyers from stamp duty.

Working conditions for young people need to improve

Labour deliberately made this a prominent theme in the early part of the campaign, with their high-profile announcement about banning zero-hours contracts. But they have followed this up with further related pledges, viz a ban on unpaid internships of more than four weeks, and a “Compulsory Jobs Guarantee”: a paid starter job for every young person unemployed for more than 12 months. The Lib Dems have promised the same on internships.

The bidding war on the minimum wage between the three main parties has also been noticeable. Labour’s pledge to raise the minimum wage to more than £8 an hour by 2019 has outbid the other two, but only marginally (we should note the Tories’ pledge to pass a new law so that nobody working 30 hours on the minimum wage pays income tax on what they earn). Labour also argue that their manifesto offer on the living wage, incentivising businesses to pay this, outstrip the other two main parties. Those concerned that 18-24 year-olds are getting a raw deal in the jobs market might take heart from this cross-party consensus

Roll up, roll up, you can vote now you’re 16 (er, next time round)!

Last year's Scottish referendum allowed 16 and 17 year-olds the vote. This was something of a breakthrough and it is therefore plausible to see the Lib Dems and Labour include this measure in their manifestos (NB: Labour have promised to introduce this by May 2016). Whether this offer is sparking a greater interest amongst teenagers in the campaign and the general political debate remains to be seen. There is plenty of evidence to show how much they got involved in the Scottish referendum; although that might be more down to the binary nature - and fundamental importance - of what was at stake.

The Greens, not surprisingly, given the relative strength of their youth vote, are enthusiastic advocates of lowering the voting age to 16. In fact, the Green manifesto devotes a whole chapter to young people, taking in other measures like the exploitation of interns, and private sector rentals. Support for young people is a thread through the entire Greens’ manifesto. Incidentally, Plaid Cymru has joined the club by saying that the voting age for Welsh Assembly elections should be lowered to 16.

We will continue to send you to university (if you want)

The Economist recently ran a striking cover: “The world is going to university”. The consistent policies of Conservative and Labour-led governments over the last 25 years have been to grow the number of higher education places at British universities. There is no let-up on this thrust in the party manifestos this time around. The Tories adopt the simple maxim of “if you want to go to university, you can”, proposing to abolish the cap on higher education student numbers. The Conservatives also advocate the introduction of a national postgrad loan system for taught masters and PHD courses.

Nick Clegg seems to be making the Lib Dems’ pitch on education their point of differentiation in this election. And, despite this being high-risk in the light of Clegg’s broken promise on tuition fees as part of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats are again reaching out to the student population: on further funding for higher education; and with offers on the young person’s discount card.

Labour’s big offer - with which Ed Miliband has been personally closely involved - to the student population is the reduction of tuition fees from a maximum of £9k to £6k per annum. The Greens manifesto goes a lot further, promising not only to end tuition fees but also to cancel existing debt.

We will put more focus on mental health

The Lib Dems have also sought to make an emphasis on mental health something that marks them out. Their separate proposal to put the Department of Health in charge of drugs policy might also strike a chord with younger people.

But the Tories and Labour would also argue that, through their overall health policies, they intend to give greater parity to mental health. Mental health is of course not exclusively the concern of young people - although Labour makes a nod in their direction by promising to focus on encouraging the development of social and emotional skills in young people - but this would seem to be the election where the politicians finally recognised that the challenges of carving out a life and career when you are young can have a major impact on an individual’s mental well-being.


If the polices above may hold particular appeal for voters under 30, the political parties are between them also promoting other themes which might persuade some young people still to give the ballot box a miss.

We care more about old people than you

The old adage, “the older you are, the more likely you are to vote”, is well-worn because the evidence supports it. At the 2010 election, 76% of registered voters over 65 went to the ballot box, the highest percentage for any age demographic (which consistently falls as the age categories become younger). So it is perfectly understandable that the parties should want to appeal to the age category most likely to get out and vote.

The Conservatives have traditionally attracted the grey vote more than the others. Their continued strong emphasis on pensioners - the “triple lock” on the state pension, protection on benefits such as the free TV license, the new flexibility to access your private pension savings - might arguably convey the impression to under-30s that the party just does not care about them in the same way. However, Labour (bar restricting winter fuel payments for the richest 5% of pensioners, a measure really targeting wealth rather than age) buys into practically all the same measures. The question will remain: will older people vote in significantly greater numbers than younger people?

Tough love on benefits from all sides

Labour are taking a tough approach on benefits, like the Conservatives. The former’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee is accompanied by the blunt message that, if you don’t take the job offer, you will lose your benefits. The Tories will crack down further on Jobseekers Allowance and Housing Benefit for 18-21 year-olds.

Today’s cultural climate on welfare means that this tough approach from the main parties is shared across all the major parties.. Younger people could be justified in saying that they are being targeted unduly for the politicians’ inability to control government public spending. But, put simply, the message is stark: if you want state benefits, you will have to work for them.

Brexit may not appeal

YouGov ran a poll in February on citizens’ voting intentions if a referendum were to be held on the UK leaving the European Union. The demographic break-down of YouGov’s numbers was instructive. The rule of thumb - the older you are, the more likely you would vote for Brexit - was to be expected. But what was striking was that 63% of 18-24 year-olds would prefer to stay in the EU, compared with 47% in the next youngest category (25-39 year-olds).

This finding might not bother UKIP, whose core constituency is most definitely not drawn from the young. However, it might be more of a concern to the Conservatives, given David Cameron’s promise to hold an in/out referendum within two years, should his party be returned to government. The counter-argument to that is that voters are largely unconcerned with foreign affairs and that even EU membership does not feature prominently - one to watch for the youth vote, perhaps.

Where is climate change in this campaign?

Likewise, the research regularly shows that it is young people who take climate change must seriously. This is one of the main reasons why the Greens attract a youth vote (and UKIP do nott). However, despite the Lib Dems, in particular, making a major pitch on climate and the environment with its Green Magna Carta approach, their willingness to raise green issues in the national “air war” has been less than full-throated (lesser still Labour or the Tories). Young voters might sympathise with Sir Brian Hoskins’ (the eminent climate scientist) high-profile criticism last week that politicians are ignoring climate change in this campaign just as they have done in the past.

In Conclusion

This analysis has concentrated on the parties’ polices. So it has left out at least 50% of the equation, which is how appealing the parties’ leaders and personalities are. In an election where selfies, tweets and the random question (what’s your favourite 80s song?) count more than ever, that “personality test” will probably define just as much which political party appeals more.

What our analysis does show is the parties are offering enough on policy - in a positive and negative sense - which is relevant to young people. Whether that is enough to clear away some of the apathy which so many young voters clearly feel about politicians (enough to make them vote!) is another matter. Perhaps the Russell Brand test needs to be introduced?

Topics: UK politics

Conor Brennan

Written by Conor Brennan

Conor is an experienced consultant who advises clients in the data economy, insur-tech, and energy sectors.

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