Countdown to the election: What are young people thinking?

What do students and young people care about - and in an election year, what would turn them out to vote? Ben Farmer reveals the results of new polling

Ben Farmer is an Account Manager at integrated communications agency PLMR, and a former sabbatical officer at Oxford SU.

At the next general election, now increasingly expected to take place in November 2024, a new set of voters, those who turned 18 after December 2019, will have their say in a national election for the first time.

Many of these are the “Covid generation” – who finished their school years or started university, work or training in the pandemic.

Whilst it is well known that younger people typically support more left-wing parties, at PLMR, we wanted to get an understanding of what the outlook currently looks like ahead of the next general election.

On closer inspection, it appears that there is still plenty up for grabs and voters, including younger voters, have not yet decided who they’re voting for, or even if they will vote at all.

What the numbers say

Latest polling showed that 58 per cent of 18-34 year olds plan to vote Labour this year, against the average population of 46 per cent.

We asked voters how open they were to changing their minds on who they voted for at the next general election. 52 per cent of 18-24 year olds are open to changing their mind, compared to just 31 per cent of over 55 year olds – suggesting that the final few months of campaigning will, as ever, be critical to secure votes particularly from younger people.

When we asked voters what their most important policy issue was, health came out on top for under 35s. This is perhaps a bit of a surprise given health is often seen as an issue for older age groups with young people more vocal on housing or environmental issues.

However, we know people of all ages have been struggling with NHS waiting lists, indeed for the over 35s health and energy were tied as the priority issues for government action.

After health, education and skills was the most important area for 18-24 year olds, perhaps reflecting how young people have experienced school, college and university over the past few years.

All to play for

However, there are still several months to go until the next election, even if Rishi Sunak opts for a May election. 50 per cent of 18-24 year olds told us that how they voted in the next General Election will depend on what each party says over the coming month about the policy area that matters most to them.

That’s the highest percentage of any of the age groups polled.

Only 44 per cent of over 55 year olds said announcements over the next few months would change their voter intention. Parties across the political spectrum will be hoping their “easter eggs” and surprise policies saved for the short campaign once the election is called will persuade voters of all ages to make up their mind and back them.

Meanwhile, as both Labour and Conservatives increasingly become broad churches with vocal splinter groups in both camps, how important are individual politicians and candidates, rather than the party policy platform which they stand on?

50 per cent of 18-24 year olds said policy announcements matter more than the views of individual politicians in each party, perhaps reflecting the continued strength of party or policy direction.

This is instead of the ‘cult of personality’ seen in the 2019 election, where it seemed every voter on the doorstep had a love or hate of Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson that drove their decision at the ballot box.

The even split between policy announcement and attraction of individual policy announcements seems even across age groups, with 52 per cent of 35-54 year olds and 57 per cent of over 55 year olds agreeing that policy trumps individual politicians.

Getting the vote out

But will young people even vote? Electoral turnout in the under-30s is a perennial issue and PLMR’s polling suggests little has changed. 35 per cent of 18–34-year-olds said they had no plans to vote at the next General Election. That compares to just 12 per cent of those aged 55 who are not intending to visit their polling station this time around.

There is still some positivity. 39 per cent of 18-34 year olds feel optimistic about the next General Election, with a third of those over 35 also feeling optimistic.

Whilst SUs and wider civil society do great work in highlighting the importance of democracy and voting, there is still much to do in advance of the next general election.

As has been highlighted on Wonkhe, there’s also a need to make the registration system as easy as possible for students. Bess Mayhew and Paul Greatrix’ piece suggested universities and councils could work together to deliver auto-enrolment for voter registration – a very effective way to ensure students are signed up each year.

Alongside this, it’s also important to make sure students actually turnout to vote. Adapting the timetables on polling day and working with councils on polling station locations are two ways to maximise turnout.

Raising awareness of the new voter ID rules and supporting students to get their ID sorted will also be critical. So whether the next election is in May or November this year, it’s vital to ensure young people are ready to have their say in what will be a crucial vote.

Polling of 2,300 UK adults was completed by Savanta in December 2023. Data were weighted to be representative by region and by UK adults by gender. Savanta is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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