Generation Gap

I was looking through YouGov’s full polling data over the past few weeks yesterday, and was struck by a particular feature of the statistics for the Lib Dems. As mentioned before, we’ve been stuck on 7-8% for pretty much eight years now, but underlying this is an interesting demographic split which should be a little bit worrying for the party.

A recent report showed that the Liberal Democrats have the youngest party membership on average, and has the highest percentage of 18-24 year olds as members, coming in at around 6% (I suspect the number is in fact higher than the QMUL/YouGov polling data would suggest, with internal estimates of Young Liberals membership being between 8-10,000). But looking at the YouGov Westminster voting intention figures, the 18-24 category is in fact our worst age group in terms of vote share.

With the exception of what seems like one anomaly, we’re stuck on around 5-6% with 18-24 year olds, and even including the anomalous 10% figure in this poll taken in mid-February, we still consistently poll behind the Conservatives for the youth vote, which should be worrying considering their reputation at the moment.

The age group which gives us the most support, consistently, is the 50-64 group. And while this is sustainable in the short term, this poses an enormous problem for our party. We are the youngest party by all measures, and yet the young simply aren’t voting for us – and eventually, this will reach a point where our vote share will drop off.

The solution to this has to be strategic as much as policy-based. The tuition fees debacle must have harmed young people’s trust in us. But populist and wrong-headed policies like tuition fee abolition mustn’t be allowed to creep back into our scheme of thinking, nor should we think narrowly when trying to build trust and appeal back up, and only talk about higher education policy.

As a young person, my big concerns at the moment are housing and the cost of living, as well as general progressive concerns like the environment and equality. The Liberal Democrats have good policy on this already, but we need to turn it into a coherent strategy, augment it with bold proposals that don’t fall foul of Technocrat Syndrome (such as standing up to NIMBYs and pledging to reduce the green belt), and electorally target young people.

I don’t know the exact form this would take, but a starting point might be to send target letters to 18-24 year olds across the country, putting forward the case that we are the party that wants to start afresh for young people, and give them the same opportunities their parents had. We want to make the cost of living affordable, ensure every young person has the opportunity to get on the housing ladder, establish an education dividend to redress the generational gap, and so on.

Young Liberals can be part of this as well. We must get better at campaigning outside of freshers’ week. Student societies should start putting out student Focus leaflets all year round, and YL as an organisation should provide templates and funding to be able to do this. Non-student societies should be tasked by local parties with focussing entirely on 18-24 or 18-30 year olds in particular wards, so there are always sections of each local party ruthlessly focussing on expanding our support amongst the next generation.

Our goal as a party must be to improve support amongst young people from a dismal 5%. We’re the third party, and Labour have a monopoly on youth voting at the moment. But even doubling that and consistently getting to 10% amongst this age bracket will help us nationally, and help solidify the emerging coherent demographic that the Lib Dems nationally need to be targetting.