Leader comment: Young need a reason to vote in EU referendum

Both Leave and Remain campaigns have failed to connect with voters and many under-34s are not even on electoral roll

Ed Miliband has called on younger people to vote in the EU referendum. Picture: Getty

A crude analysis of 2014’s independence referendum was that young voters backed separation, while older voters were more likely to favour the status quo.

Regardless of their politics, however, the extension of the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds helped energise the campaign and turned a new generation on to the political process.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

In a speech today, former Labour leader Ed Miliband will warn that sort of enthusiasm is missing from the young in the run-up to the EU referendum. Mr Miliband, who is slowly building his public profile again after last year’s general election defeat, is issuing a “call to arms” to young people to get themselves registered in time for next month’s vote.

He will warn that the outcome of the vote is in doubt because millions of young people likely to vote Remain are missing from the electoral roll. There are six million 18- to 24-year-olds eligible to vote, but 1.5 million of them are not registered

Of eight million 25- to 34-year-olds eligible, a quarter are not on the electoral roll. Mr Miliband is right when he says a decision not to vote is a decision to let someone else decide your future. But the younger generation can be forgiven for their ambivalence to a campaign which has failed to set the heather alight, even if the vote is of huge importance.

It has been claimed that recent changes to the registration process, focusing on the individual rather than the household, are partly to blame for the low numbers registered. But the real reason surely is that many millions are not engaged enough in the political process to care.

There is an assumption that if they can be persuaded to register, they will vote. But that’s far from certain. If they need pushed to register, they will probably need to be pushed to turn out on 23 June.

It doesn’t have to be this way. One of the great things about the independence referendum was the record turnout.

That was because campaigners managed to connect with voters and the electorate knew this was a once-in-a-generation chance to decide the future of our nation.

So far before the Leave and Remain campaigns have singularly failed to connect with voters. Maybe the findings of the Treasury committee – that both sides have been peddling “misleading” figures and “implausible assumptions” – is part of the reason. Indeed, the campaign has got ridiculous this week, with the increased cost of a summer holiday the latest scare tactic. Never mind the economy, security, immigration – what about your fortnight in Tenerife?

Let’s not forget that a proposal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum – as happened in Scotland, and again at the recent Scottish elections – was rejected. A missed opportunity.

If we want more young people to register, we have to give them a reason to believe that this matters. With just weeks to the big day, it may already prove too late to convince them that they have something significant at stake.