Let’s close the EU referendum generation gap

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 3rd June 2016

If you feel let down by the state of the EU referendum debate you’re not on your own. But it turns out there’s one group who are being especially locked out of the conversation: young people.

There’s a stark generation gap in the EU referendum debate – and it’s not getting better.

New BMG Research polling we’ve released today shows younger people are totally disengaged from the debate – just 47% of 18-24 year olds say they will definitely vote, compared to 80% of those aged 65 or older – a huge 33 percentage point gap.

What’s worrying is that this is up only slightly from the end of April when the respective figures were 41% and 76%. Much of this we already knew though.

Look beyond that, and there’s a deeper disconnect among young people with the referendum debate. Only 16% of 18-24 year olds say they feel ‘well informed’ or ‘very well informed’ about the vote – compared to 32% of those aged 65 or older.

That’s a shocking divide, and we know that there’s a clear link between how well clued up people feel about something and how likely they are to put their cross in the box on polling day. Worryingly, the findings about how well informed young people feel about the referendum are actually a decline on the same figures for the end of April.

And the BMG Research polling for the ERS also shows that young people still aren’t being reached by the campaigns: a third – 32% – of 18-24 year olds have not been contacted about the referendum at all so far, compared to just 13% of those aged 65 or older. So that’s a third of our young voters who have been completely ignored. It’s no wonder many don’t plan to vote.

Young people simply haven’t been mobilised by either of the campaigns. The 33 percentage point chasm between young and old when it comes to whether they will vote bodes badly for our democracy when it comes to ensuring we have as representative a vote as possible.

With Leave and Remain close in the polls, campaigners need to be targeting those young people who have been least engaged so far. One in five 18-34 year olds are undecided – but only half of them say they’ll definitely vote as things stand. A low turnout among young people isn’t inevitable however, as we saw with the Scottish referendum. But they need to be inspired to get out there (starting with getting them registered to vote – the deadline is June 7th).

We’ve decided to do something about the current state of affairs: the EU referendum debate doesn’t have to be like this. We and academics have just launched a new online toolkit for the EU referendum, Better Referendum – a ‘primer’ for groups of people to arrange meetups and have informed debates on the EU referendum. We want everyone – but especially those currently least engaged – to have a grassroots conversation about the referendum.

Whatever happens, this referendum shouldn’t be decided by one generation on behalf of another – this is a vital national conversation that needs to involve everyone, not just older voters. Let’s call time on the EU referendum generation gap to make sure this really is a truly national conversation.

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