Young Britons could sway EU referendum - if they turn up

British Prime Minister David Cameron with students at the launch of the "'Brighter Future In" campaign bus at Exeter University last month.
British Prime Minister David Cameron with students at the launch of the "'Brighter Future In" campaign bus at Exeter University last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

Apathetic and alienated, young voters are sitting out key ballots in Britain and Australia, saying they feel detached from the issues. Yet their votes could determine the outcome of Australia's federal election and Britain's Brexit referendum. The Straits Times looks at efforts to woo young voters to give them a voice.

The fate of Britain's future within the European Union (EU) could lie in the hands of its young people - if they bother to vote.

They represent millions of votes and yet recent research suggests they will sit out next month's referendum on EU membership. With polls showing a close fight, this is worrying both the pro- and anti-EU camps.

The Remain side is especially concerned as people aged from 18 to 34 are most likely to vote for Britain's continued membership if they get themselves on the electoral register.

As the June 7 deadline to sign up looms, politicians, educators and campaigners are encouraging young people to speak up.

Eddie Izzard, one of the country's most famous comedians and a Remain supporter, began a 31-city tour in 31 days this week to call on young people to register for the referendum.

  • Millions of votes involved


  • There are a total of 46.4 million eligible voters in Britain.

    The voting age is 18.

    British government census data does not give figures for the 18 to 34 age group but shows that those aged 15 to 34 comprise 26 per cent of the population. Those aged 15 to 24 comprise 13 per cent of the population.

    This represents millions of votes and means young voters could determine the outcome of the referendum, given that younger voters were more supportive of Britain remaining as part of the EU, compared with older voters who surveys show were more inclined to vote to leave.

    Apathy remains a problem with many young people not interested in voting.

    According to youth empowerment organisation Bite The Ballot, 30 per cent of youths between 18 and 24 are not on the electoral register.

"It's the biggest decision of their lives, our lives, and I just don't want other people to tell them how their future should happen. They should have their voices heard," he told the BBC.

A recent poll by Opinium found that just over half of those aged between 18 and 34 supported Britain staying in, compared to less than a third who wanted out. But only half of this group said they would turn up at the polling stations on June 23. In contrast, 54 per cent of those aged 55 or over wanted out, versus 30 per cent who wanted in. But of this group, 81 per cent were determined to vote.

Electoral Reform Society chief executive Katie Ghose said such surveys show a "deeply concerning generation gap".

"It seems like young people haven't been engaged in a debate which has so far focused on personalities rather than the real issues which affect them," she said.

This is particularly the case with university students, she said, with less than half in the 18-24 age group voting in last year's general election.

Nearly half of voters in this age group told survey firm YouGov that the EU debate resembled "a group of old men shouting at each other". Worse, the referendum is in the middle of summer when students are more focused on concerts, carnivals and travel.

Opposing groups such as Students For Britain and Students For Europe have been trying to galvanise young people to take a stand through registration drives and canvassing on campuses.

Youth empowerment organisation Bite The Ballot has also launched the #TurnUp campaign, which aims to register 500,000 people in a week.

One of those who will turn up is musician Jason Harding, 24, who will vote to stay in. "This decision affects our future, and we should definitely have a say in it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'Young Britons could sway EU referendum - if they turn up'. Print Edition | Subscribe