Director, Youth Engagement Fund
What caused such an astounding youth turnout in Britain earlier this month, and what, if any, implications are there for the U.S.?
There are many political uncertainties in America today but this we know for sure: if 70% of young Americans turnout to vote in the 2018 midterm elections as did British youth in last week’s parliamentary elections we will have progressive majorities throughout the nation – in Congress, statehouses, and state legislatures. At the Youth Engagement Fund, we are studying what happened in the U.K. and looking for opportunities to apply lessons learned to a U.S. context.
“The Labour Party blocked a conservative landslide by making the hopes and aspirations of young people the heart of their vision for progressive governance.”
Young people, on both sides of the Atlantic, have not always been reliable supporters of progressive politics. In fact, both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan garnered tremendous support from young voters, many of whom remain a core part of the conservative base till the present day. That’s because political events that happen at the age of 18 are 3x as powerful as events that happen at the age of 40. Young people today are the first generation to feel the full impact of a trans-Atlantic political and cultural swing to right, which has defined our collective politics for the last 30 years or more. Student debt, underemployment and rising housing prices are just a few examples of the legacy left behind by previous generations of voters who chose the policies of Reagan and Thatcher in their youth and now continue to do so into their older years by a large majority. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party recognized the key to breaking this iron curtain of power was through building the engagement and power of the next generation. Youth voter participation is widely credited with handing Britain’s Conservative Party a massive election defeat, including the loss of its parliamentary majority after initially being 20 percent ahead in the polls. The British Labour Party, achieved its biggest vote share increase since 1945 and, while voters of all ages supported Labour’s agenda, the surge in turnout among younger voters was the most decisive factor. For comparison, millennial (generation Y) turnout in the British general elections of 2015 was 48.5%.
Progressive efforts to build the engagement and power of British young people started back in 2015 during a grassroots campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party. The most notable role in these movement-building efforts, outside of the Labour Party itself, was an independent political organization called “Momentum.” Momentum is a membership-based organization aligned with the values of the Labour Party but fully independent of it operationally. After generating the groundswell that swept Corbyn into Labour leadership, the group continued to engage in year-round, issue-based organizing on concerns held by young people. Momentum built a base of thousands of young volunteers and registered voters who were ready to leap into action for the snap elections. In the U.S., leading progressive organizers including Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party, Anthony Thigpen of California Calls and others have described the need for effective independent political organizations like Momentum here in the U.S. It is why the DA includes critical organizing networks like Center for Community Change, Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, PICO, and the Working Families Party in our investment portfolio and why the Youth Engagement Fund continues to support year-round political engagement of young people in the New American Majority in critical states.
“To woo young voters, the Labour Party focused on concrete solutions to problems young people were facing including tuition-free college and university as well as greater spending on their National Health Service.”
Another major factor in the dramatic increase in British youth turnout was a concerted effort by the Labour Party itself to make young people’s broad economic anxieties hallmarks of their campaign to lead the U.K. Labour did not distance themselves from Occupy Wall Street like protests against cutbacks and rising costs of living. The party embraced the new political culture of resistance these protest movements created and raised expectations that government could be a vehicle to realize the hopes and aspirations of young people. To woo young voters, the Labour Party focused on concrete solutions to problems young people were facing including tuition-free college and university as well as greater spending on their National Health Service (among the largest employers of young people in the U.K.). Their message was simple – “for the many, not the few.” The Labour Party did not opportunistically try to position its Party program to the right of youth-led protests but ran a campaign to make their grievances a new political center. A clear and unequivocal message that acknowledges and proposes concrete solutions to this inequality also resonated with many young voters in the U.S. too during the 2016 Democratic primary. In 2018, the United States Student Association’s efforts to electoralize the issue of tuition free higher education and the Alliance for Youth Action’s campaign on economic justice are just a few examples of what young organizers are doing here.
Finally, the shocking referendum on British membership in the E.U. (Brexit) was largely seen by young people as a retreat from diversity and inclusion. Conservatives chose to take a hardline on immigration in the recent snap election campaign. They also promised to undo human rights protections in the fight against terrorism. Labour on the other hand championed the rights of minorities and ran a racially and gender-diverse slate of candidates for members of parliament. They also campaigned for a fair immigration system that would allow European nationals to remain in Britain. During the trans-Atlantic swing to the right, conservatives often won support for austerity by dividing the electorate and scapegoating blacks, immigrants and others. But today, young people are more likely to see diversity and inclusion as national strengths rather than weaknesses. The significance of the Labour Party’s message was that it was able to offer younger voters both a progressive economic vision and a vision committed to advancing minority rights.
So what must progressives do to seize our golden opportunity with young voters in 2018? First, we must flip the narrative and perceptions of why youth aren’t voting. What is unique about young people isn’t their youthfulness but their newness. They’re entering into a political process and policy discussions that older generations have engaged with for years and face a unique set of challenges that other constituencies do not experience in the same way. If we’re going to take youth engagement seriously, we must meet these new voters where they’re at, on college campuses and in communities across the nation – from technical schools to universities to workplaces like hospitals. The younger generation is acutely aware of problems that collectively affect us all, from global warming to institutionalized racism. To make progress on any of these issues we must engage them in meaningful conversations and help connect the issues they find important and relevant to voting in elections. Lastly, the progressive community must be a consistent and persistent presence in the lives of new voters through year-round, grassroots organizing. While flashy videos with celebrities are great, we have to start consistently building relationships with new voters across the U.S. now, and wait not wait until 2018 or 2020.
Younger and older generations of Americans are equally essential for creating a new politics of shared prosperity and social inclusion. But the political culture for decades has swung so far to the right it’s hard to imagine it swinging center and left without the support of a new generation. The Labour Party blocked a conservative landslide by making the hopes and aspirations of young people the heart of their vision for progressive governance. If there is the will and commitment to do so, the same thing can happen here in 2018.