‘Youthquake’ did back Corbyn and Labour in 2017 general election
The 2017 snap general election saw a dramatic shift in party support during the campaign. From polling as low as 25% in mid-April, Labour secured 40% of the actual vote on 8 June.
Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for the surge.
One of the most widely held views in the weeks that immediately followed the election was that Jeremy Corbyn had particularly appealed to young people, who turned out to vote at historically unprecedented levels – the so-called “youthquake”.
Back in January, this claim was thrown into question by analysis of “gold standard” face-to-face surveys conducted in the wake of the election.
A widely reported study by the British Election Study found little in the way of change in turnout for the under-30s in 2017, concluding, “there is no evidence to suggest the relationship between age and turnout changed substantially between 2015 and 2017”.
The same conclusion was drawn by Sir John Curtice in his analysis of the 2015 and 2017 British Social Attitudes surveys.
So, case closed? Perhaps not.
Last week the University of Essex released the latest wave of the Understanding Society panel – a longitudinal household panel survey which interviews a random sample of the UK population annually on a range of different topics, including voting and party support.
A key feature is its very large sample size (around 40,000), which makes it possible to assess the evidence for change in turnout among young people at a higher degree of granularity than has been possible previously.
The graph below plots the probability of people of different ages turning out to vote.
The yellow line represents turnout in 2017, is clearly and substantially higher for the youngest voters, converging with turnout in the 2015 election only at around the age of 35.
Interestingly, the figure also reveals a significant increase in turnout for the youngest voters between 2010 and 2015, a change which has not, to our knowledge, been previously noted – indeed the focus of Ed Miliband’s Labour on youth engagement in the run-up to the 2015 general election was widely derided at the time.
These results remain even when we account for the greater tendency of non-voters to drop out of the Understanding Society panel over time.
The second graph also shows young people were also more likely to vote Labour, meaning that combined with this increase in turnout, the party drew particularly heavily on the support of younger voters in the 2017 election.
Strikingly, the probability of a person in their 20s voting Labour is around 0.7 compared to 0.5 in 2015 and 2010.
Like other sources of survey data used to investigate the relationship between age and turnout in 2017, the Understanding Society panel has its own limitations, most notably a low response rate and the use of self-reported turnout (rather than validated vote).
It overestimates turnout at the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections by between 9 and 13 percentage points.
Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to assume that these biases are largely stable across waves, i.e. the levels of estimated turnout may be too high but there is little reason to assume that changes in turnout or party support should be subject to systematically different biases across elections.
And, while the size of the turnout increase we see in this data may not be as of great a magnitude as some have contended, it would seem that 2017 may have witnessed something of a “youthquake” after all.