GE 2017 was remarkable for many reasons, one of which was the feeling that political engagement hit a high water mark. Packed-out political rallies, a surge in new voter registrations and a recovery in the anaemic turnout levels of recent elections make 2017 look like a genuine victory for democratic politics. But the reality is less convincing.
To be sure, record numbers of female, disabled and BAME MPs entered Parliament in 2017. Yet the House remains highly unrepresentative in many respects: for example at least an additional 100 female MPs would be needed to make the House fully representative of the British electorate, just by gender.
A vital part of political engagement is turnout. June’s Election saw a dramatic rise in youth turnout, with research indicating that 64% of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to 43% in 2015. Between the announcement of the June General Election and the registration deadline, of those who registered to vote online more than two-thirds (69%) were aged under 34 - a sign of increased engagement among the young.
But turnout is not necessarily an indicator of engagement with politics. Although research shows that young people are less likely than their older peers to say that politicians are self-serving, those under 34 are more likely than any other age group to say they have not participated in political activities. Equally, it can be unhelpful to treat young people as an homogenous block, since aggregate-level analysis of the election results shows that turnout increased in areas where there are greater proportions of young people with degrees. Contrasted against the lower turnout in areas where formal education levels are lower (which often overlaps with Leave-voting constituencies), this shows that youth engagement with politics does not run in a straight line. And, in every election won by Mrs Thatcher or John Major, more under-25s turned out to vote than voted in June 2017. Hardly an historic breakthrough for youth engagement in 2017.
This may or may not be a breakthrough moment for young people’s engagement with politics. But quite what that means for the long term outlook is far from clear. We know from research that voting patterns set early in life are more likely to stick, but today’s electorate is not as reliable for political parties as it once was. In 1966, 10% of people who voted had voted for a different party at the previous General Election; by 2015 that had increased to 40%. The 2017 young Corbynites (and older ones, for that matter) may end up voting quite differently at the next Election or indeed not vote at all.
So before we get too excited about 2017 representing a ‘breakthrough’ for political engagement, remember that we have been here before as far as youth turnout is concerned. It is certainly too early to draw firm conclusions about what the surprise result of 2017 means for the next Election, whenever that comes.