Young People and the EU Referendum: 5 Key Lessons from Polling Day

It is now four days since the UK took the most momentous political decision of this generation, and the dramatic consequences have dominated the weekend news: the Prime Minister has resigned, the Leader of the Opposition is facing a vote of no confidence, a second independence referendum in Scotland is now a serious possibility, and there is even talk of a reunification referendum in Ireland. There are few decisions the British public can take that will have such a dramatic impact on our political system, and it will be some time before the full consequences of the EU referendum for British politics can be understood.

The role of young people in this remarkable feast of democracy has been an issue of great interest, largely because surveys on or immediately after polling day show that younger voters stood out from their elders in enthusiastically endorsing Britain’s membership of the EU but were out-voted by their more Eurosceptic and politically active elders. With the help of YouGov, our study on Young People and the EU Referendum conducted a second survey on polling day to explore how young people planned to vote and how engaged they were with the referendum itself. Here we present our five key findings.

  • Young voters overwhelmingly backed Remain – but there were important divisions

Throughout the referendum campaign surveys and opinion polls (including our own) repeatedly suggested that young people were going to vote overwhelmingly for the UK to remain in the European Union, and data released since polling day (such as that from Lord Ashcroft) has suggested that this did indeed happen. Our latest survey supports this view, showing that 61% of the under-30s reported backing Remain in the referendum, compared with 24% who supported Leave. This makes the under-30s the only age group to overwhelmingly back the UK’s continued EU membership. Remain was backed by 46% of 31-50 year olds, as well as 40% of 51-65 year olds and 34% of the over-65s, while Leave was supported by 43% of 31-50 year olds, 53% of 51-60 year olds and 59% of the over-65s.

The 1 in 4 young people who wanted to leave the EU show that the support of the young for EU membership is far from unanimous. Our survey casts some light on the cause of these differences. As was repeatedly demonstrated in polling throughout the campaign, a key determinant of whether someone supported Remain or Leave (besides age) was education: graduates typically wanted to stay in the EU while those with no further or higher education tended to want to leave. This pattern is apparent among the under-30s, with 61% of those who had some post-compulsory education of some form, and 66% of those still in full-time education, backing Remain as opposed to just 35% of those with no post-compulsory education.

We also find that political engagement and gender played a role, however. The more politically engaged the under-30s were, the more likely they were to back Remain. When asked how interested in politics they were on a scale from 0 (meaning ‘not at all interested’) to 10 (‘very interested’), 63% of the under-30s who were very interested wanted to stay in the EU, compared with 31% who wanted to leave. Conversely, one in three with no interest in politics wanted to leave the EU, compared with just 24% who wanted to stay. This pattern is also apparent among the over-30s, but is less pronounced e.g., over-30 year olds who were very interested in politics tended to split 54% for Remain and 43% for Leave.

There is also a small gender gap among the under-30s which is not apparent among older voters. Young women were more likely to support Remain than young men, with 64% of them preferring to stay in the EU compared with 59% of young men. Conversely, 27% of young men wanted to leave the EU, compared with 21% of young women. There is no indication of any such difference among the over-30s e.g., 42% of men over-30 supported Remain and 50% supported Leave, compared with 41% of women who backed Remain and 49% who supported Leave.

  • Two thirds of under-30s voted – the highest turnout for this age group since the 1990s

72% of eligible voters participated in the referendum, the highest turnout for any national poll since the 1997 general election and well above the turnout for recent general elections and the AV referendum in 2011, though slightly lower than that seen for the Scottish Independence Referendum. Our survey shows that the under-30s probably voted at the highest rates seen for nearly twenty years, with 71% being ‘certain’ that they would vote on 23rd June, well above the just over half who reported voting in the 2010 and 2015 general elections.[1] While survey respondents do have a tendency to over-report their chances of voting, the figures are nonetheless reliable as an indication of turnout over time. The turnout of the under-30s in the referendum is a remarkably high figure against the backdrop of declining electoral turnout and political engagement more generally among young voters in the past decade.

Despite this increase in electoral engagement, the turnout of under-30s still lagged behind that of their elders. While 71% of under-30s were certain they would vote on the 23rd June, this compares with 75% of 31-50 year olds, 81% of 51-60 year olds and 84% of the over-65s. The under-30s were, despite the increase in their political engagement, under-represented in the final result compared with their elders.

While it is impossible to know exactly how the result would have been affected had the under-30s voted at the same levels as older voters, there is little question that their lower turnout had more of an impact on support for staying in the EU than for leaving it. In our data, we boosted the proportion that were certain to vote of the 18-30, 31-50 and 51-60 age groups to the same level as that of the over-65s, and then multiplied the number of Remain and Leave supporters in each group by this boosted figure. This produces an increase in Leave support within the population (not just the electorate or voters on 23rd June) of 2.4%, and an increase in Remain support of 3.4%. While the turnout of the under-30s was impressively high in the referendum, therefore, the fact that it was still notably lower than that of their elders was one of the important (though unlikely to be decisive – see below) factors behind the victory for the Leave campaign.

  • Politically apathetic under-30 year olds were under-represented at the polls

Why, then, did the under-30s still not vote at the same rate as their elders? Our previous research suggested that the biggest obstacle to under-30s voting in the referendum was their lack of interest in politics in general. Our survey confirms that being interested in politics was one of the key determinants of whether or not someone voted in the referendum (interestingly, despite its importance in determining howpeople voted, level of education had no significant effect once political interest and age was accounted for).

This means that differences in political interest among the under-30s compared with their elders plays a major role in explaining why their turnout was lower. Our data shows that the weaker propensity to vote did not extent to all those under the age of 30: it was those who are largely disengaged from politics that were under-represented at the polls. Of those 18-30 year olds who reported being very interested in politics on the 0-10 scale, 93% of them were certain they would vote in the referendum – exactly the same as the proportion of over-30s who were certain to vote. The gap in likely turnout only appears as we move down the political interest scale: of those 18-30 year olds who gave a score of 7, for example, 80% were certain to vote compared with 87% of the over-30s; of those who gave a score of 1, 46% were certain to vote compared with 62% of the over-30s. It was the politically apathetic young people, therefore, who were under-represented at the polls in this referendum – those who were highly interested in politics voted at around the same rates as their elders. Youth political apathy (which is on the increase among British young people), therefore, played a major role in depressing the turnout of the under-30s relative to their elders in the referendum. Given that support for Remain was lower among politically apathetic young people, it is unlikely that an increase in turnout amongst the apathetic young would have had a dramatic impact on the final result. This means that the chances of the referendum result being different if the turnout of young voters and older voters had been the same is very small.

  • Young people had more trust in the campaigns than their elders

The trust that people had in the messages from the Remain and Leave campaigns were also important determinants of whether or not they voted. Our survey showed that, unsurprisingly, most people (40%) did not trust the messages from either campaign by polling day. Younger voters, however, were generally more trusting than their elders: 33% of under-30s did not trust either campaign, compared with 52% who trusted either the Remain or Leave campaign at least a little. This compares 49% of the over 30s who trusted one of the two campaigns.

These differences matter because such trust had a positive effect on turnout. Even if we account for the influence of other factors which affect the chances of someone voting, such as age and political interest, those who trusted at least one of the campaigns were more likely to vote than those who had no trust in either: those who had no trust had a 74% likelihood of voting, while those who trusted the Leave campaign more than the Remain campaign had an 88% likelihood of voting, and those who trusted the Remain campaign more than the Leave campaign had an 83% likelihood of voting. The fact that the under-30s were more likely to trust the Remain or Leave campaigns, therefore, actually made them more likely to vote in the referendum.

  • Despite the negative nature of the campaign, the referendum was successful in boosting youth engagement with politics

A great deal of criticism has been levelled against both the Remain and Leave campaigns for their negative nature and fear-arousing tactics (for example see herehere and here). The full repercussions of the debate, and its impact on how voters perceive politics and politicians, will not be known for some time. There is evidence, however, that despite its hostile and combative nature, the referendum campaign and the issue of EU membership itself has actually boosted the political engagement of younger voters.

The table below shows how the political engagement of respondents to our survey changed between the start of the referendum campaign in March and polling day. In March, 7% of under-30s reported having no interest at all in politics, and 40% were highly interested. By the time of the referendum, those with no interest had fallen to 5%, and the proportion that were highly interested increased to 45%. More impressively, the number who were certain that they would vote in the referendum increased by 22% between March and June. Similar increases in engagement were apparent among older voters as well, but the effect was less dramatic. For example, the proportion of 31-50 year olds who were certain to vote in the referendum increased by 20% between March and June, while that of 51-60 year olds increased by 12%, and that of the over-65s increased by 10%.

Table 1: Changes in Political Engagement, March – June 2016
 Political Engagement March June
  18-30 31-50 51-60 65+ 18-30 31-50 51-60 65+
No interest in politics 7% 9% 5% 5% 5% 6% 7% 5%
Low interest in politics 20% 18% 14% 16% 16% 18% 19% 18%
Some interest in politics 33% 33% 30% 30% 35% 31% 27% 32%
High interest in politics 40% 40% 51% 49% 45% 45% 47% 46%
Certain to vote in EU referendum 48% 56% 69% 74% 71% 75% 81% 84%

Source: Young People and the EU Referendum survey

There is little question that the referendum campaign, and the issue of EU membership itself, has stimulated the political interest of Britain’s young people to an extent not seen for decades. Whether this proves to be lasting, and is the beginning of a sustained boost in the political engagement of Millennials with politics, remains to be seen, as does whether there is any lasting effect on the faith these newly engaged young people have in our political elite and democratic debate following the most negative, personal and hostile political campaign for many years.

[1] According to the 2010 and 2015 British Election Studies

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to