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General election: Drive to sign up young for ‘vote of a lifetime’ as registration deadline looms

Election dominated by Brexit could have decisive effect on the lives of those now in their teens and twenties, campaigners say

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 23 November 2019 16:06 GMT
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General election: Registering people to vote in the street

There is overwhelming support for automatic voter registration at 18, new polling for The Independent has found, as campaigners battle to sign up millions of missing young voters before Tuesday’s deadline to take part in the general election.

More than 200,000 under-35s were among a surge of 308,000 people who signed up to vote on Friday, in the fourth-busiest single day for applications in UK political history – breaking the record for any day other than the official deadline.

But the Electoral Commission believes many more risk losing their vote in what campaigners said may be the most important election in the lifetime of today’s young people.

With the result of the 12 December poll likely to decide the outcome of Brexit – which is massively opposed by younger voters – there were calls for teenagers and people in their twenties to make their voice heard on an issue which could shape Britain’s future for the remainder of their adult lives.

The president of the National Union of Students, Zamzam Ibrahim, told The Independent: “Young people are realising this is the election of our lives.

“It is crucial for students to register to vote so we can have our say on polling day. We have been ignored by politicians, whether on Brexit, tuition fees or student accommodation, for too long. Enough is enough. Students have been leading the way on all of these topics for decades and it is time that politicians caught up. This will only happen if all students are registered to vote.”

And Mete Coban, the chief executive of young voter engagement charity My Life My Say, said: “This is the defining election for our generation. We are talking about making a decision with Brexit that is going to affect the direction the country goes in maybe for the whole of young people’s lives.”

The Electoral Commission recently estimated that as many as 9.4 million eligible voters are not on the electoral roll, or are not registered at their current address. They are calling on anyone who thinks they may not be registered to make an application at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.

Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the National Union of Students (NUS)

Friday’s race to join the electoral register took place on the unofficial National Voter Registration Day declared by campaigners and backed by civil society groups and trade unions with the social media hashtag #RegisterToVote.

Among those signing up were 103,000 under-25s, 103,000 25- to 34 year-olds, 53,000 35- to 44 year-olds, 28,500 45- to 54 year-olds and around 20,000 people aged over 54.

The voter registration drive was backed by Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn declaring that young people should “have a say in the future of your country”. The party pledged to introduce automatic voter registration in its manifesto earlier this week.

Polling by BMG suggested that the registration of younger voters should benefit Mr Corbyn’s party, with 45 per cent of 18- to 24 year-olds and 42 per cent of 25- to 34 year-olds backing Labour, against 26 per cent of 18- to 24 years and 25 per cent in the 25- to 34 year-old age bracket supporting the Tories.

Support for continued EU membership was also skewed heavily towards Remain among younger voters. The 18- to 24 year-old age group split 68-32 against Brexit, while Remain led by 67-33 among 25- to 34 year-olds. The only age groups continuing to back EU withdrawal are 55- to 64 year-olds by a slender 51-49 and over-65s by a commanding 66-34, according to the BMG poll.

The survey found that almost half (44 per cent) of voters believe the government gives too little consideration to young people’s concerns and needs, compared to 32 per cent who said they got enough attention and 14 per cent too much. The proportion feeling younger voters’ needs were neglected by government soared to 64 per cent among 18- to 24 year-olds.

But the figures showed this was far from being a simple battle of the generations. Even among over-65s, the 35 per cent saying young people’s needs should be given a higher priority far outnumbered the 16 per cent who said they got too much attention.

There was little appetite for a cut in the voting age, with 21 per cent favouring 16 as the threshold for taking part in elections and just 1 per cent saying it should be reduced to 14. More than half (58 per cent) favoured keeping the current voting age of 18 and 12 per cent said it should be 21.

But there was strong backing for a system of automatic voter registration at the age of 18, backed by 59 per cent of those questioned against 34 per cent who said it should remain the responsibility of individual teenagers to secure their right to vote. Automatic voter registration was backed by all age-groups except the over-65s and by supporters of all major parties except the Conservatives and Brexit Party.

The NUS has long campaigned for automatic registration at both students’ home address and place of study. Many countries around the world, including Finland, Sweden and South Korea, already automatically register voters or allow same-day registration at polling stations.

Ms Ibrahim said there was a real concern that students may miss out on their vote on 12 December, either because they are not registered or because of the end of university term in the days around election day.

Students could play a decisive role in a number of election battlegrounds (Getty)

“This government have done all they can to try and stop students from voting,” she said. “They put forward a bill to introduce voter ID and they have tried to set the date of the election outside of term time.

“But they should know that students will not be silenced. NUS will be mobilising students in record numbers to get the vote out on polling day.

“We are encouraging all students to register to vote at both their home and term-time address and then to look at where their vote will have most impact. If they are not going to be able to make it to the polling booth they should register for a postal vote to make sure that they can have their say.”

A number of Conservative-held seats are vulnerable to an upsurge in student voting, among them Southampton Itchen, where Royston Smith has a majority of just 31, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where Boris Johnson’s 5,034 majority in 2017 is roughly comparable to the number of students living in the constituency, home to Brunel University.

The non-partisan My Life My Say group is running a voter registration drive through events across the UK, and is teaming up with 30 leading Instagram and YouTube influencers on Tuesday to encourage a last-minute rush to sign up.

The Vote For Your Future (VFYF) campaign is sending out teams of voting ambassadors on Tuesday to knock on doors in halls of residence and areas of student housing to urge people to register, to back up a series of social media ads that have been seen 25 million times in the last few weeks.

And a group called Political Digest is running a Beer Ballot initiative in a number of London universities, offering a drink to any young person who applies for registration.

Lara Spirit of VFYF said that even before Friday’s surge, youth registration was running above previous levels, with 750,000 under-25s and 1.5 million under-35s applying to register since the start of the campaign and the final total heading towards 3 million by Tuesday.

“This is the most important election in a generation,” she told The Independent. “Young people, after an incredible year of protests on Brexit, on climate change, on #MeToo, finally have a chance to make a real difference to the result.”

Mr Coban said: “I think we will get a high youth turnout. One of the good things about Brexit is that it has politicised the younger generation. I’ve been doing this for nine years and I’ve never seen such a demand to be heard.

Although there are still a lot of young people missing from the electoral roll, we have more than double the numbers in 2015. Part of it is the impact of social media and influencers getting involved.”

The BMG poll found that among 18- to 24 year-olds, Brexit and health were named as the most important issues at the election followed by education and climate change. Although the NHS and Brexit also topped the agenda among 25- to 34 year-olds, they were more concerned about housing and the cost of living than any other age group.

- BMG questioned 1,663 British adults between 19 and 21 November.

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