Brexit, young people and the parties II: Welsh local elections

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

After yesterday’s ‘trigger warning’ we await with bated breath the news that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has been enacted. This will kick off two years of UK-EU negotiation followed by what is likely to be a slow and complex process of disentangling legislation post EU-exit. Today’s date could herald a new wave of political domination by Brexit, bringing with it new concerns around EU migrants’ status, the future of EU work and travel for UK citizens and implications for the labour market. This uncertain and tumultuous context sets the scene for the UK local elections in May. While local elections are, in theory, based around local issues and the performance of local authorities, in reality they are more often a reflection of national politics. The local elections are likely to be dominated, therefore, by the ways in which the political parties propose to deal with the, as yet unclear, implications of Brexit.  This blog looks at the youth population in Wales to highlight the potential ways in which Brexit may affect youth engagement in the upcoming local elections.

Local elections and young people in Wales

Local elections will be held across the UK on the May 4th 2017, just 51 days away. Members for each of Wales’ 22 local authorities will be elected to represent their constituency in joint decision-making on the delivery of over 700 services, including a raft of issues affecting young people. For example, local councillors vote on local development plan (LDP) policies that set affordable housing targets, meaning local election results could influence the number of young people able to buy a house in their area in the future. The average price of buying a flat in Cardiff, where a large chunk of Welsh jobs are located, is around £175,000 compared with around £83,000 in Rhondda Cynon Taff, or £75,000 in Merthyr Tydfil where jobs are more scarce. The recent Welsh Government White Paper giving local authorities the power to lower the voting age in local elections, is another clear example.

Despite the importance of local issues for young people, while 73% of 18-24 year olds were aware of the Electoral Commission registration campaign in the Welsh local elections of 2012, intended turnout among this group was the lowest of all age groups. National Survey for Wales (2015) results show that only 5% of 16-24 year olds have contacted their local councillor in the last 12 months, compared with 11% of 25-44 year olds, 14% of 45-65 year olds and 18% of 65-74 year olds. Only 15% of 16-24 year olds strongly agree that they understand what their local councillor does, compared with 18% of 25-44 year olds, 28% of 45-64 year olds and 40% of 65-74 year olds. The youngest age group is the least engaged and least aware of the outcomes and consequences of local elections in direct juxtaposition to the impact of local decision-making on young people and previous blogs on this site highlighting the link between young people’s political issues of concern and local scales of governance.

In short, local issues play a major part in shaping young people’s future and their conceptions of politics but, to date, young people in Wales are as unengaged with local elections as they are with any other form of democratic participation that does not involve a divisive issue and hostile campaign (see Scottish independence and EU referenda). Will Brexit change this?

Local elections and Brexit

When thinking about the ways in which Brexit might affect youth engagement in the local elections it is worth looking back to the referendum results of 2016. Of the five local authorities that voted to remain in the EU (Gwynedd, Ceredigion, Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff and Monmouthshire) only Cardiff has a population with over 10% of 16-24 year olds. Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Cardiff all contain universities, meaning a likely concentration of student voters, which partially explains the ‘remain’ vote in these areas. With this in mind, these same populations may be more likely to turn out on May 4th, having been disappointed by the Brexit vote. Of these five local authorities, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan are currently Labour-led (of 10 Labour-led local authorities in Wales). In Gwynedd Plaid Cymru hold 49% of seats and in Ceredigion they hold 45%. In Monmouthshire the Conservatives hold 44% of seats. Post-EU referendum for young people in Wales who voted to remain, and are more likely to support a soft Brexit, the following parties are unlikely to be attractive options in the upcoming elections: UKIP, the Conservative party currently pushing through a hard Brexit and the Labour party which supported a hard Brexit in the House of Commons. For those same young people the following parties are likely to be attractive options: Plaid Cymru now pushing for a Welsh independence referendum at a time when polling results show a slight increase in support for independence among the Welsh public, and Scotland could well see a referendum in 2018; the Liberal Democrats strongly advocating a soft Brexit; and the Green Party also supporting a soft Brexit.

Taking polling results collected in February 2016 and more recent polls collected in January 2017 we can see the following change in political party support among 18-24 year olds in Wales:

Table 1: 18-24 political party preference (%)
February 2016 January 2017
Labour 33 30(-3)
Conservatives 21 26(+5)
Plaid 23 18(-5)
UKIP 11 7(-4)
Lib Dems 11 13(+2)
Green 1 4(+3)


Perhaps surprisingly, Labour, Plaid and UKIP have lost support amongst the youngest age group, with Plaid support showing the most severe drop. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have all gained support, with the biggest incline of 5% for the Conservatives. If Brexit is influencing party support among young people then given that most young people supported remaining in the EU and subsequently are likely to support a soft Brexit, the change in Conservative and Plaid support is surprising.

In terms of turnout in February 2016, 9% of 18-24 year olds in Wales ‘would not vote’ and 19% ‘didn’t know’ whether or not they would vote if an election were held. By January this year the percentage who ‘would not vote’ has nearly doubled to 16% but the percentage who ‘don’t know’ has dropped to 16%. This shows a potential decline in turnout among 18-24 year olds in Wales post EU referendum. It also shows a decline in uncertainty about voting and an incline in certainty not to vote. While these changes are small and could alter in the run-up to the local elections, at present they indicate a drop in intended democratic participation among young people in the context of Brexit.

These results indicate that Brexit has had minimal impact on political party preference and likelihood to turnout to date. At present voting trends among young people in the upcoming local elections are as likely to be driven by issues disconnected or indirectly connected to Brexit as they are by the UK leaving the EU.