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EU Referendum - Every Vote Counts

If opinion polls are to be believed it is the votes of young adults that will define the EU referendum in June when Brits head to the polls. While older generations are more hostile to the European Union, the younger generations appear more likely to opt for ‘Bremain’ over ‘Brexit’.

According to Scottish MP Mhairi Black, young people could “hold the balance”, with a recent online poll by Opinium showing 53% of 18-34 year olds back staying in. Yet there is uncertainty over whether young people will turn out to vote, with only 52% in that same poll saying they were certain to do so.

So how do we get this generation to engage in one of the most important votes of their lifetime, and how can we do more to educate students before they hit voting age to ensure they’re ready to vote?

The issues

A 2014 study carried out by academics at the University of East London found that just 7% of young people felt they knew a lot about the EU, with just 12% believing that the EU impacted their lives a great amount. It is this lack of understanding about the EU that has meant many young people have failed to get fired up about the referendum.

As many of us have experienced since the start of the campaigning, when facts are presented in the media, it’s spun by the two camps in such a way that can even the smartest and most clued-up people scratching their heads about what’s true. Moreover, the terms of the debate have been defined by big business, the economy, and immigration – yet both sides can agree the EU is involved in much more than that.

For those eligible to vote, too many young people are still not on the electoral register, and even if they are, many will not exercise their right to vote whether it’s for the referendum, local elections, or in the General Election every five years.

The issue has become so much of a concern for the government that David Cameron has even taken the unusual move of working with dating app Tinder to get people talking about the issue.

The EU means something different to everyone

From my personal perspective, the EU brings many benefits to young people, but politicians on both sides have so far failed to gain the cut-through to enthuse them. It’s why David Cameron is taking an unexpected step to partner up with Tinder to get the message across.

The ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group has focused on talking about apprenticeships, jobs and employment, and the overseas studying and working opportunities created by the EU, while the opposing Leave group has argued more money would be available for education in the event of a Brexit.

However the issue of the EU goes deeper than that. It has done a lot for social causes – such as taking measures to protect equal pay, to fight discrimination, to support working benefits like holidays, parental leave and sickness rights, and helps cover your healthcare if you get ill on holiday.

It is these issues that are more likely to stimulate a discussion with young people than reeling off the big figures bandied about by both sides of the argument that even I can admit some days struggling to understand!

How you can help

Across the country schools and colleges are seizing the opportunity to engage young people with the EU referendum. While some won’t be able to vote in June, we all play a part in helping this generation with understanding politics, and highlighting the importance of voting in advance of when they can vote.

Mock referendums have already taken place around the UK in different formats. Some have invited external speakers in, some are getting students to argue the position of those in the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camp, and others have taken the simplified approach of blocking out some time in the day to explain the referendum and have a mock vote at the end.

Politicians of all political persuasion often jump at the chance to visit future voters, and engage with young faces who they would not typically meet. While MPs will have a busy diary ahead of June 23rd, you may also find councillors, political party activists and even members of the House of Lords may take up an invitation. They can provide materials from their campaigning too.

For colleges prompting the importance of registering to vote with those turning 18 is essential – there’s nothing worse than energising young people to vote, only to find they cannot! With the deadline on 7th June, people need to act fast. Use your internal communications channels to direct students to the website. There students can sign up for a postal vote – so they have plenty of time to vote in elections – even if they’re at Glastonbury that day!

At the University of East Anglia the Student Union has held a series of political debates about the European Referendum offering different perspectives on the issue. The Vice-Chancellor has issued a blog on the UEA intranet outlining the importance of registering vote, and a new section of the website promotes some of the key issues surrounding the debate.

When it comes to encouraging younger people to vote, I firmly believe that doing nothing is not an option.

Often the charge levied at politicians is that “voting doesn’t really change anything”. I believe the outcome of the EU referendum could change everything – and every young person’s vote will truly count.

Posted by Jono Read on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

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Jono Read is a graduate of the School of Politics at the University of East Anglia, and in his spare time is a ‘digital activist’. He has fronted a number of national campaigns – successfully overturning the government’s proposals for a cider tax in 2010, fighting the BBC’s plans to close BBC Three on TV, and campaigning against cuts to the local ambulance service – all attracting widespread online support. He is a Labour Party activist, and is presently campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU.

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