The EU referendum aftermath

Advocate Larissa Kennedy argues that we need to work harder to engage young people in politics – starting by smashing unhelpful stereotypes.

Larissa Kennedy, Advocate
30 Jun 2016

Statistics show that most 18 to 24 year olds didn't vote in the referendum - why? 

We are one week on from the EU referendum and no clearer about what the future for young people looks like outside Europe.

One thing's for certain – Brexit doesn't reflect the views of the majority of young people. There was a huge generational divide on the issue, with an overwhelming majority of young people wanting to remain in the EU and a similar majority of over 65s wanting to leave. And when only 36% of 18 to 24 year olds voted - compared to 83% of those aged 65 and over – the vote swung against us.

This is especially sad, given that my peers and I will be living with the consequences of this decision for an average of 69 years.

Getting the facts

It's clear from the results that not enough of us turned out to make our voices heard. But I feel like we have been let down by both Remain and Leave camps. With badly organised campaigns alongside the constant bashing of young people, it's no wonder we may have felt conflicted or even unable to make an informed decision.

The first big issue was the statistics. There were a million and one statistics flying about – often contradictory ones from the Remain and Leave campaigners – but barely any of them seemed relevant to me or the pressures I, and many other young people, face.

I did care about how leaving the EU would affect employment prospects and house prices - but I also cared about whether or not it would mean higher phone bills when I'm on holiday! The EU just passed a law to get rid of roaming charges as of June 2017. I'm about to be a broke student, and cheaper phone bills would have made a real difference to me (plus, no more running from one Starbucks to the next for free Wi-Fi when you're abroad!)

Neither hip nor groovy

The second thing that bugged me was the narrative around young people. I'm an 18-year-old black girl, so I was either being patronised by the media, told that young people don't care (please stop referring to my friends and I as 'apathetic' and 'disinterested') or bombarded with information that wasn't helping me make a decision.

Alongside this, I was trying to take my A Levels. I mean, they wonder why voter turnout among young people is low when it's smack-bang in the middle of exam season!

Attempts to connect with young voters, such as the #votin campaign, just came across as condescending. If that was the best attempt to appeal to young people, we're doomed. The campaign consisted of words like 'learnin', 'workin' and 'chillin' – a vocabulary about as down with the kids as anyone who says 'hip' or 'groovy'.

Plus, the website's lack of information was an insult to the intelligence of young people - as though we were incapable of absorbing more than two sentences without a picture! It just exposed the patronising assumption that because we're young we have short attention spans, which is very unfair.

No representation

Even when I did reserve some time outside of my revision to research the referendum, I got fed up listening to David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage battle it out. At one point 91% of national newspaper coverage on the referendum gave preference to men speaking. Had I stepped into an alternate reality where the voices of women and ethnic minorities were irrelevant?

There is no excuse, media hotshots. We had enough female MPs speaking out for you to donate more than a measly 9% of your coverage to them. Needless to say, I felt underrepresented - because white, middle-aged men don't exactly scream out relatable to me.

What happens now?

Whatever your opinion on the referendum, this outcome demonstrates one thing – we need to do more to engage young people. There are too many barriers stopping us, in particular girls and young women, from feeling connected to politics.

Our Girlguiding Chief Executive Julie Bentley has signed this statement calling on politicians and policy makers to ensure young people are engaged in determining the future of the country. Over the next few months, it is paramount that decision-makers involve young people in setting out the vision for the UK going forward. Politicians also must become less critical of young people and more relatable, and diverse if they want true democracy.

One positive thing that's come out of the referendum is #the75percent hashtag. Young people on Twitter and Tumblr have been using it to highlight their opinions around the result. It's powerful to see, and shows that we truly care about our country and our future. Let's start involving young people's voices today - it's time to modernise the way we do politics to make it accessible for everyone.

Join our youth panel

Passionate about politics? Get involved with Advocate and make your voice heard.