EU Referendum

The student vote proves no piece of cake

Students at the University of East Anglia
Image caption Just over a third of 18- to 24-year-olds say they intend to, or are certain to, vote, according to the Hansard Society

"Dear Gran, can I come round for a slice of Battenberg and a cup of tea… and persuade you to vote to remain, with me, on 23 June?"

That is the message on just one of a series of postcards - addressed to Grans and Grandpas, Mums and Dads - on the Vote Remain stall at the student union cafe at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

It highlights one of the biggest questions of this referendum campaign: will the young, who tend to be in favour of staying in the EU, be outvoted by the old, who tend to be in favour of getting out?

Critical to that will be whether the young bother to vote at all.

Research carried out for the Hansard Society suggests just over a third of 18- to 24-year-olds intend to or are certain to vote, compared with well over two thirds of the over-75s.

Apathy, ignorance, scepticism

Chatting to students at UEA, you discover why.

You hear all the same old reasons you hear at election time:

  • "I've been very busy"
  • "I don't know enough about the issues"
  • "Voting won't any really change anything"
Image caption Those under the age of 35 are roughly twice as likely to vote to stay in as those over the age of 55

It is, in other words, a mixture of apathy, ignorance, and scepticism about the entire political process.

"I didn't even know it was on the 23 June, so now I know," one student tells me. "So with this vote, do we determine the decision, the public? Oh great, OK."


Intention to vote:

  • Those aged 65 and over are twice as certain to vote as 18- to 24-year-olds
  • One third of those aged under 35 say they are unlikely or certain not to vote
  • 63% say they are interested in issues to do with the European Union
  • 38% feel knowledgeable about the EU
  • Source: Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement 2016

Some even say they will vote "next time". There may, though, be no second chance.

If Britain votes to leave the European Union, it is unlikely we will be given the opportunity to change our minds within a few years.

If we vote to remain, it is more likely that there will be a second vote - under pressure from those unhappy with the result first time.

But, just as in Scotland, they will be told that this was that once-in-a-generation possibility and they blew it.

Digital drive

No wonder, then, that so much energy is being put in, particularly by the Remain campaign, to persuade young people to register to vote by the deadline of 7 June.

Facebook, Twitter and even Tinder, to which Prime Minister David Cameron himself has turned, are all being used to try to capture their attention before it is too late.

Image caption Emily Cutler is one of those trying to get students registered to vote

Amy, an officer at the student union, tells me: "The main problem for us as a student union to get students involved is the lack of motivation, and the tangible argument and quick sound bite, for them to get involved."

Those under the age of 35 are roughly twice as likely to vote to stay in as those over the age of 55, but why?

Is it that they see the practical benefits of membership of the EU - whether cheaper mobile phone calls or easier travel or opportunities to study abroad?

Is it that the young are more liberal in their attitudes - particularly to immigration?

Are they more sceptical about the leading Leave politicians - such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson?

Or is it simply that membership of "Europe" is seen as like the weather - ie it just is what it is?

Perhaps it is a mixture of all four.

Corporatist fears

It is striking that those people who approached me on campus to tell me that they were in favour of leaving were pretty ideological - from left and from right.

Some saw the EU as a "neo-liberal institution" enforcing the will of big business.

Image caption Some students feel the referendum is not relevant to their daily lives

Others saw Brussels as quite the reverse - a bureaucratic corporatist socialist body stopping Britain having the freedom to govern ourselves and trade as we like.

Those political arguments are, though, very much in the minority.

For most people, this referendum - like so much politics - is pretty irrelevant compared with the other concerns of day-to-day student life.

So what may determine the future of these young people is not whether they have that slice of Battenberg with Gran but whether they can convince themselves that this is a vote that is a once-in-a-generation decision that will affect the rest of their lives.

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