16/17 year-olds and the EU Referendum: A potential coup for the ‘In’ campaign

In November, the House of Lords voted in favour of allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in Britain’s EU referendum, expected to be held sometime in the next two years, and on 14th of December, following a rejection of the proposal by the House of Commons, the issue was put before the House of Lords again. The debate has opened up yet another battle between those who want to see Britain remain a member of the EU, and those who wish to leave it. Eurosceptics are hostile to the idea, while EU-supporters are far more favourable. While part of the disagreement may well reflect differing opinions on extending the franchise, there is a clear instrumental motive behind these views as well: Millennials – not just in Wales but throughout Britain – are considerably more likely to favour membership of the EU than older generations. By extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, Eurosceptics fear that a larger cohort of supporters for the ‘In’ campaign will suddenly be given the right to vote.

It has been known for some time that younger voters are more likely to look favourably on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. This is not so much a universal trait associated with being young as it is a reflection of the generational decay of British Euroscepticism. The graph below, based on data from the British Election Study, illustrates the trend which has led to the Millennials being the most pro-EU generation since Britain joined the organisation in 1973. While Euroscepticism has fluctuated since then, each new generation entering the electorate – particularly since the arrival of the 80s generation – has tended to be less Eurosceptic than their predecessors. Typically, between the 2001 and 2015 elections, an average of one in five Millennials could be described as Eurosceptic. This compares with a similar proportion of the 90s generation between 1992 and 2015, and a quarter of the 80s generation since the beginning of the data series in 1987, as well as around a third of the 60s-70s, Post-War and Pre-War generations.

EURefSFJan2016Source: British Election Study, 1987 – 2015. Data reports % of respondents who disapprove of Britain’s membership of the EU.

This is why allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in any referendum on Britain’s EU membership will inevitably help the ‘In’ campaign; younger generations are less likely to be hostile towards the EU, and so are more likely to vote to stay. The British Election Study shows that at the time of the 2015 general election 55% of Millennials would vote to remain in the EU, compared with 18% who would vote to leave – a net ‘stay’ score of +37%. This compares with scores of 26% for the 90s generation, 5% for the 80s and 60s-70s generations, -2% for the Post-War generation, and 3% for the Pre-War generation.

While it is clear that the Millennials are a distinctly pro-EU generation, it is harder to identify why this is the case. Previous research has suggested that part of the reason is that Millennials tend not to think that the EU has much influence over their daily lives, while older voters feel it is very influential. The feeling that the EU is particularly influential over issues one cares about tends to be associated with Euroscepticism because it is harder for a British voter to influence EU decision-making than it is that of a more localised body (such as the UK government). Another important perception relates to immigration. As the campaigns of the United Kingdom Independence Party have demonstrated, anti-immigration sentiments are strongly associated with hostility towards the EU because it is the single greatest source of immigrants to the UK. Around the general election, 90% of those who disapproved of Britain’s EU membership felt that they were too many immigrants in the country, compared with 64% of those who were less critical of EU membership.

As well as being the least Eurosceptic, Millennials are also the least hostile generation towards immigration. 58% of Millennials feel that there are too many immigrants in Britain; still a majority, but notably lower than the average of three quarters of the older generations. When asked to rate how beneficial immigration is to Britain’s economy on a scale from 0 (meaning no benefit at all) to 7 (meaning highly beneficial), 10% of Millennials say there is no benefit compared with an average of 20% in the wider electorate. In addition, Millennials are the least likely to think that immigration is a salient issue; 32% said that they felt very strongly about it, compared with half of their elders. In short, the Millennials are less hostile towards immigrants and immigration, and are less likely to think it is an important issue, so they are less likely to be critical of the greatest source of immigrants into Britain: the EU.

In the Millennials, therefore, supporters of Britain’s EU membership could well have a vital resource, one they could maximise through lowering the voting age for the referendum to 16 and enabling an even greater chunk of the most pro-EU generation in Britain’s history to vote. Perhaps more worrying for Eurosceptics is that the Millennials’ relative support for the EU compared with their elders is not a passing tendency which will dissipate as they age, but reflects a generational shift in attitudes making the young less likely to be hostile towards the European Union. As UKIP campaigner Michael Heaver puts it, British Euroscepticism is sitting on a ‘demographic time bomb’; with each new generation, the pool of supporters for British withdrawal from the EU will shrink.

Before getting carried away, however, the ‘In’ campaign should remember that while the Millennials may be the most pro-EU generation in the country, they are also the least likely to vote and are the most politically apathetic. Even in the Scottish Independence Referendum, the turnout of the 16 and 17 year olds (while greater than that of 18-24 year olds) was estimated to be at least 10% lower than that of older age groups. If the potential of extending the franchise for the referendum is to be realised for supporters of EU membership, they will need to ensure that the move is accompanied by a well-funded, sustained effort to engage Millennials with the referendum and the opportunity to vote in it.

About the author: Dr Stuart Fox (@stuarte5933is a Quantitative Research Associate at WISERD, based at Cardiff University. He provides quantitative research expertise and support to projects throughout the Civil Society Research Centre. He also develops links between those projects and works with colleagues to exploit new research opportunities from the overlap between the Centre’s extensive research portfolio. He completed his PhD in Politics at the University of Nottingham, where he studied the political apathy and alienation of young people in Britain and the effect of each on their political and civic participation.