Capturing the elusive youth vote

The animal that often leaves politicians scratching their heads

One of the unwritten rules of political campaigns is that you should never bet on young voters. Speaking to Trinity News,  Fine Gael 2019 Local Election candidate Orla Kelly relates that “there is this general idea that the youth vote does not always come out to vote and indeed their turnout would be much lower than, say, people in their 50s or older.” So what would it take for parties to draw younger voters to the polls? What are the worries that play most on young minds?

It seems that it is issue-based politics, not party politics, that makes up our bread and butter. Maggie Larson believes that young voters consistently feel left behind: “…voting in Mayo I find that political campaigning operates almost entirely on promising benefits to GAA clubs or pensioners or farmers, and basically not at all on proposals for structural change and development.” Is this sense that mainstream parties are not offering anything to young people tied to their tendency to avoid polling stations come General Election day?  

TD Michael Healy-Rae is an Irish Independent politician who has been a TD for the Kerry constituency since 2016. He says that there is “an awful lot of the issues I deal with that would be local issues would be national issues as well, and would affect those in Donegal as much as in Kerry. Take the SUSI grant. If I’m fighting for students’ rights in Kerry I am fighting for them nationally as well.” 

 “…Meagre attempts to encourage the private housing sector to fill the gaps in the market come too little too late for people of an age that will not be able to afford a home until their early forties…” 

Yet, do most politicians appear to be rather out of touch to young people? Maria Pachowicz, a final year Maths and Psychology student says politicians are a “distant and unrelatable elite, catering for your standard middle-aged man.” However, Deputy Healy-Rae believes that by running as an Independent: “young people now see that you don’t have to belong to the political establishment to represent people, and anyone can run for election so long as they put the work in for people.”

Year on year, election after election, political parties make their case to the electorate about why they are best fit to run the country. In the 2016 General Election, major talking points focused around the abolition of water charges, cutting the USC and continuing the journey of our economy out of recession. Today’s sound bites are really no different than promises made before: greater investment in public services, tax cuts and now, as a result of massive and continuous pressure, a movement towards a greener economy. But what do these parties offer to young people? It is not very helpful to promise tax cuts to students who either cannot balance jobs with their studies or earn so little that they don’t even meet the first tax threshold. 

Maggie Larson, Senior Fresh Maths, admits: “…a lot of things that don’t currently matter to me will probably matter a lot more once they start affecting me like, property taxes and TV licences, and that’s likely a big reason I feel disconnected from political parties at the moment.”

 “The passive acknowledgement and almost total ambivalence of young people to politics in this country would seem almost justified when it comes to choosing a government.” 

Other issues, such as investments in healthcare and meagre attempts to encourage the private housing sector to fill the gaps in the market come too little too late for people of an age that will not be able to afford a home until their early forties, if they’re lucky. Giving his views on what issues current Trinity students care about most, Jack Williams, Senior Fresh BESS, said that “Spiralling accommodation costs, and a lack of investment in SUSI on top of this, is affecting disadvantaged students.”

The passive acknowledgement and almost total ambivalence of young people to politics in this country would seem almost justified when it comes to choosing a government. This is not to say that student activism doesn’t exist. On the contrary, youth protest movements have been spreading across the globe. Just before the EU elections this year, students turned out in over 1,700 cities in 120 different countries to demand climate action. The global student strike on September 20 drew even bigger numbers again. This may explain why in the recent local and European elections, we saw a massive swing towards the Green Party and other Pro-EU parties across Europe. Despite the fact this enlarged support was made up of many kinds of voters, with different motives, there are two conclusions that can be drawn from this. 

“Climate, above all else, is the single biggest issue of our time and is not given enough weight by Irish political parties.”

Firstly, young people are some of the biggest supporters of the EU, despite making up a shrinking portion of Europe’s rapidly ageing population. According to Eurostat, just 26% of  citizens of the EU28 are under the age of 25 – while 40% are 50 or older. This is backed up by a 2017 survey on Why Europe Matters by JA. 

Secondly, young voters are increasingly concerned about green issues. According to Ben McConkey, Senior Fresh PPES, young people want a healthy planet to live on and for their children and grandchildren to live on in decades to come. McConkey argues that: “climate, above all else, is the single biggest issue of our time and is not given enough weight by Irish political parties.”

Is there really only one party, one issue that is important to us? Is the Green party the only champion of young voters? Green Party Councillor Malcolm Noonan of Kilkenny commented to Trinity News that “it is important, not to just tap into the youth vote for a great share of the vote, but ethically because we feel it’s important young people’s voices be heard.” 

Despite the fact that most young voters care more about climate change, liberal issues, and are usually much more pro-European than older generations, this is not always the case. It is striking that outside of Ireland, many European youths are nostalgic about an unspecified past and a significant number of youths are drawn to right wing or anti-establishment parties. Support for the far-right Jobbik is twice as high among Hungarians under 30 as it is among all Hungarian voters. The Swedish Democrats, Spain’s Vox, PiS in Poland, and Kotleba in Slovakia all perform particularly well among Millennial voters. Right wing parties across Europe like the Swedish Democrats and the Netherlands’ Forum for Democracy boast leaders under 40. In Ireland, the centre-right Fine Gael’s leader Leo Varadkar is the youngest party leader in the Dáil. 

It is clear that regardless of young voters’ differing objectives, they are still bringing critical issues to the fore. Which is perhaps why the previous lack of youth engagement in elections is even more noticeable when compared to high profile, progressive issues like repealing the Eighth Amendment which was supported by Students Unions like Trinity’s. This campaign saw massive engagement and leadership from some of the youngest in society, with 87.6% of 18-24 year olds voting Yes, according to the RTÉ Exit Poll. But how many of those votes will translate into ballot boxes checked come General Election Day? 

According to Orla Kelly, mainstream parties either don’t know how to engage with young voters or, in some cases, they quite simply do not care, because they know that the voters that can be relied upon to return to the polling stations time and time again are of an older vintage. “From all my attendance at local, regional and national events, political parties are still eager to chase the youth vote but not quite sure which strategy is best and tend to dilute their message to cover all bases.” Is it a wonder that governments invest extra money they find in the yearly budgets into pensions, instead of SUSI?

Why should mainstream parties act any differently when, according to Orla Kelly: “There is no organised lobby group that has sufficient leverage to effect change,” because “they do not have the same cohort of people, or numbers as let’s say, older people, the farmers, or those on social welfare.” 

This narrative of a disengaged youth is starting to prove less convincing. Given that in the past two to three years alone, student activism and engagement appears to have skyrocketed, even catching the attention of those “political elites”, is it possible that the political landscape really is changing to fit a new, widespread agenda? Mainstream parties often assumed that young voters are radical, idealistic, or politically inactive, before becoming more conservative, pragmatic, and politically engaged later in life. Despite the growing consensus among social scientists, like Jeffrey Lyons, that people’s political orientations are most heavily influenced by their environment, an effect that grows stronger as they age. To answer the question, we need only look to the breakdown of votes from the Repeal referendum to show that on social issues, the youth are not as radically outside the mainstream as some think. Given that “Yes” was carried in all but one constituency, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the time: “men and women, almost every age group, and every social class have voted ‘Yes’ to repeal.” This looks like a promising sign.

So what does this all mean for parties trying to win young hearts? A clean idea, clearly explained with a strong social media presence seems to be the way to go. Senior Fresh Nano Science student Luke Fehily believes: “a party must demonstrate that they can quickly and decisively enact public opinion …take a solid stand and follow through on it.” All we have to do is keep making noise.

Sean Gordon Dalton

Sean is a Deputy Features Editor at Trinity News