Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has won over Britain's youth — but will they actually vote?

As the U.K. election looms, the issue of Brexit has increased interest in the Labour Party among the under-30 set. It's not just Brexit that has engaged younger voters but also the party's policies to address inequality.

Increasingly in Britain, age determines which party voters choose in the polling booth

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn poses with supporters during an election rally in Birmingham. Pollsters suggest that youth voters overwhelmingly support Labour. (Tolga Akmen/Getty Images)

One of the few safe bets in this week's British election is that 70-year-old Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn will sweep the country's under-30 vote.

Youth registrations for the Dec. 12 vote are up over 2017, Labour election rallies are full of young faces and a Labour platform that emphasizes a generational redistribution of wealth appears to have a struck a chord.

Conservative Party candidate James Newhall said the uphill struggle to connect with young people was underscored for him at a recent youth forum at Barnet and Southgate College in North London. He spent several hours talking up his party's plans to protect the National Health Service (NHS), lower taxes and, of course, take the United Kingdom out of the European Union with a Brexit deal.

Just 32 years old and with several years behind him working in the halls of power in Westminster, Newhall would seem an attractive option for a younger voter looking for an energetic, well-connected member of Parliament. But it was a tough crowd.

"I disagree," said one student who stopped to quiz Newhall on Tory polices but walked away quickly, having taken issue not just with Brexit, but practically every one of Newhall's talking points. 

"We struggle with the youth vote," Newhall acknowledged in a CBC interview later. "I don't know why. We are the party of aspiration, the party of meritocracy."

Conservative candidate James Newhall, second from left, pleads his party's case with young voters at a recent forum at a London-area college. (Fred Gagnon/CBC)

An ICM online research poll released last week suggested that 67 per cent of Britons under the age of 24 were preparing to vote Labour, compared to just 17 per cent Conservative. At the other end of the age spectrum, the phenomenon was reversed, with 59 per cent of 65- to 74-year-olds preferring the Conservative Party, versus just 17 per cent for Labour.

It reinforces a remarkable trend in the U.K., where age has emerged as the main driver of which party voters choose.

Brexit divide

Labour's election manifesto, or platform, champions free tuition and nationalizing the country's rail system — two policies that are popular with younger voters. The Conservatives play up controlling immigration and holding the line on taxes, which plays well with older age groups.

It is Brexit, however, that has "turbocharged" the divide between young and old, according to one recent study.

"The youngest voters particularly favour Remain. Older voters, over the age of 65, favour to leave," said pollster Joe Twyman of Deltapoll, noting that the debate over Britain's future in Europe has amplified the divisions along age lines, which have been growing for decades.

Labour Party candidate Emma Whysall meets students at Barnet and Southgate College. (Fred Gagnon/CBC)

But leadership counts, too, Twyman said. While Labour's Corbyn, who has been a socialist stalwart for over 40 years, is hardly a fresh face, Twyman said he nonetheless projects values that matter to younger voters.

"He shows consistency and authenticity," said Twyman, suggesting Corbyn's perceived "genuineness" is highly valued by people under 30.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, has been criticized for flip-flopping on key policy questions — especially his support for Brexit — opening him up to criticism that he will say or do anything in order to win.

WATCH | A student makes his pitch to encourage other young voters to cast a ballot in the U.K.'s Dec. 12 election:

Young U.K. voter says his peers will turn out on election day

3 years ago
Duration 0:30
With the election just days away, one young voter believes the youth vote is on the upswing in the United Kingdom.

'Bold solutions'

Compared to the U.K., voters in Canada seem to be far less polarized in this way.

"In Canada, we [see that] age matters, but it isn't as strong a predictor of voting behaviour as it is in the U.K. today," pollster David Coletto of Abacus Data told CBC News in an email.

Coletto said that just as 78-year-old Bernie Sanders appeals to many Democrat voters in the U.S., the Corbyn experience in Britain proves you don't need a young leader to appeal to young voters.

"If you want to get young voters to engage, diagnosis the problem clearly and offer bold solutions," Coletto said. 

Nonetheless, when it comes to next week's vote, it may be the Conservatives that stand to benefit most from Britain's age polarization. Older people tend to out-vote younger ones by an almost two-to-one ratio.

The Conservatives, led by Boris Johnson, stand to benefit most from Britain's age polarization, as older people tend to out-vote younger ones by an almost two-to-one ratio. (Reuters)

"If you are the Conservatives, you can't ignore the young completely," said Twyman, the British pollster. "But what you have to hope for is that the trend for younger people to vote in smaller proportions will hold."

Increased engagement

At the event at Barnet and Southgate College, 19-year-old student Baran Atilmis told CBC he'll be supporting Labour in this election. He also said he believes the Brexit question will motivate young people to vote in far larger numbers than the country has seen in the past.

"You are seeing a major shift in youth engagement," he said. "I think there's a definite change on the horizon."

Candidates such as Emma Whysall, who's running for Labour in the Barnet constituency, said her team has put a great deal of effort into getting young people to register to vote, and believes it will pay off on election day.

"We know where to go, where to find them and get them out to vote, and do that polling-day operation," she said.

WATCH | Young Britons fed up with Brexit delay and confusion:

Why young Brits are conflicted ahead of the election

3 years ago
Duration 3:09
Students from the Northern School of Art in Hartlepool, northeastern England, are disillusioned by the drawn-out Brexit process as they head into election day.

The Resolution Foundation, a left-leaning think-tank, has just completed a closer examination of Britain's so-called age divide. While its latest report emphasizes the extent to which Brexit has accentuated the split between young and old, co-author Maja Gustafsson said the dissonance between generations goes far deeper than a single issue.

"There's been a shift in terms of economic opportunities and wealth toward the older population," Gustafsson said.

'We need a better balance' 

She said young people feel their incomes are stagnating and government spending is skewed toward helping older people maintain their standard of living.

"We have to really think about improving living standards for the young, plus also maintaining and providing quality health and care for older generations," said Gustafsson. "We need a better balance."

One question no one seems to have an answer for is whether young Labour supporters will grow out of the party as they start paying taxes and buying homes. 

"In the past, they have aged out of it," said Twyman. "The [high cost of] housing and inequality suggest it could be different this time around."

WATCH | Students at a school outside London hold a mock vote after hearing politicians' pitches:

Young people given the chance to vote in mock U.K. election

3 years ago
Duration 2:03
Just days before the real thing, young voters at a school outside London hear from U.K. politicians, then participate in a mock vote.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.