Are we feeling the tremors of a political ‘youthquake’? This question has been keenly debated since the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 General Election revealed that age has become the key demographic dividing line in British politics. In 2016, young people were far more likely than their elders to vote Remain, while in 2017 many rallied to the Labour Party – an alliance symbolised by images of the Glastonbury crowd singing Jeremy Corbyn’s name. Such was the interest in these political trends that Oxford University Press declared ‘youthquake’ to be its word of 2017. In recent months, though, there has been something of a backlash. The British Election Study team have debunked ‘the myth of the 2017 youthquake’, arguing that there was little evidence for the claimed sharp rise in turnout amongst young people. Britain’s favourite pollster, Sir John Curtice, has also lent his weight to the sceptical voices. Has the political power of youth been oversold?
Historians of the 1960s might get the feeling that we’ve been here before. The word ‘youthquake’ was, after all, coined in 1965, and the media of the period were saturated with discussions about the potential political, social and cultural impact of young people. The emerging baby-boomer generation was better educated, more affluent, and healthier than its pre-war predecessors, and there were growing calls for young people to be granted new legal and political rights.
Fifty years ago, in July 1968, Harold Wilson’s Labour Government announced its intention to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 – ushering in what the Daily Mail described as a ‘“Teenage Power” Plan’. 1 Yet securing agreement for this reform was far from straightforward, not least because of anxieties about a political ‘youthquake’. The all-party Speakers’ Conference on Electoral Law established by Wilson recommended lowering the voting age from 21 to 20, rather than 18, because of its uncertainty about the consequences. No other major democracy had a voting age that low, and opinion polls showed that the public was content with the status quo. Even within the Labour Cabinet there was deep concern.
Minister of Transport Richard Marsh thought ‘it was a zany thing to give young people the vote’, Minister of Power Ray Gunter feared that schoolchildren ‘would be unduly influenced by their teachers’, and others suggested that the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists might exploit young voters. 2 A rather uncertain Wilson eventually decided to push ahead, ushering in what his Cabinet Secretary would describe as the ‘last milestone on the long and historic journey to full adult suffrage’. The new voting age took effect for the first time in the general election of June 1970.
In the run up to the 1970 election, newspapers speculated about the impact of ‘the youngsters who can shake Britain’ and listed marginal seats where ‘student power’ could ‘tip the balance’. As in 2017, the election result was a surprise, although in 1970 the incumbent, Wilson, was turfed out of Downing Street. There were similarities in the voting patterns, too. Under-35s were 10% more likely to vote Labour, even though the Conservatives had an advantage of more than 3% among the public as a whole; their turnout levels were significantly lower, however – 74%, compared with 87% for the over-55s. The Conservatives then, as they are now, were spooked by this evidence: an internal memo from the party’s Research Department argued in 1976 that if the party continued to ignore young voters, it might never again be able to form a majority government.
Over time, the talk of a ‘youthquake’ faded. That’s not to say that age-related voting patterns were unimportant, or that young people did not become an important political constituency. It did become clear, however, that many of the generalisations made about them were too simplistic, and the Conservative party found that it could – as it did in 1979 and 1983 – secure advantages even in the youngest age groups. Differences of class, gender, ethnicity, education and region continued to cut across generational identities.
At certain moments – as in 1970, and 2017 – the politics of generation became unusually important, and it was possible to mobilise significant numbers around specific issues, such as housing and Europe. Ultimately, though, such alliances have proved to be hard to sustain in Britain’s relatively static first-past-the-post system, and young people have remained harder to engage than older sections of society. Britain’s political system may experience some disturbances, but don’t expect a full ‘youthquake’ anytime soon.
Adrian Bingham is Professor in Modern British History at the University of Sheffield specialising in 20th-century Britain and the popular press. He is also involved with the Stories of Activism project, and is a Senior Editor of History & Policy.