Bryce Edwards: Is a “youthquake” looming, or not?

Bryce Edwards: Is a “youthquake” looming, or not?

Age dynamics are set to have a crucial impact on this year’s election. In particular, there is evidence of very strong alignment between young voters and Labour, and between older voters and National. It seems that age issues, and generational politics have become politicised along partisan lines to a highly unusual degree. Youth, who have been somewhat absent from recent elections, appear to be re-awakening. But it’s not clear yet whether this will produce any sort of “youthquake”.

Of course, forecasts and speculation about a possible youthquake have been in motion for a many months, especially following the surge of young people voting in the UK, and the fact that they appear to have voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

I had previously dismissed the possibility of that happening here – writing well before this year’s election started to get interesting, back in the days before Jacindamania – suggesting this election will be more like a “youth yawn” – see my earlier column, Youthquake unlikely to shakeup NZ politics.

But since then the election race has got colourful and close. Suddenly signs have appeared of a renewed political interest amongst younger potential voters. And in the last fortnight, there’s been great excitement – especially on the political left – about the potential for a youth surge to help sweep Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party into power. But, ultimately it will depend on whether younger voters actually turn out to vote.

Evidence of a youthquake coming

The strongest evidence of a powerful age dynamic coming into the election campaign came out of the most recent 1News Colmar Brunton opinion poll, which showed that “67 per cent of 18-34 are voting or intending to vote Labour” – see: ‘Something’s clearly going on here in terms of this idea of a youth quake’ – Corin Dann on huge new Colmar Brunton poll.

Labour’s incredible success with youth is also shown in two other surveys that have just come out. Survey firm SSI was commissioned to run a poll for Newsroom, which also showed that 65 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds intended to vote Labour, with only 14 percent of this group favouring National – see Tim Murphy’s Labour opens gap with women, young.

Inversely, National dominates amongst older age groups: “Labour’s lead reduces progressively as the age of respondents rises, but is still 57 percent to 22 among 25-34 year-olds, 45 to 26 for those 35-44 and 49 to 24 for those aged 45-54. Only from 55 to 64 does National pull ahead, by 39 to 34 over Labour, with a commanding lead of 53 to 27 for those aged 65 and above.”

The Horizon polling company also identifies a similar trend: “By age, Labour’s strongest support is coming from those aged 18-34. 52% of definite voters aged 18-24 support, Labour, 25% National. 47% of those aged 25-34 support Labour, 32% National. The parties each have 32% of those aged 35-44 years. National has more support among those aged 45+. Among those 65+ National has 52%, Labour 29%” – see: Main parties in dead heat.

Doubts about a youthquake

In the initial stages of the election campaign, the Electoral Commission reported a surge of youth voter enrolments, which gave greater weight to the idea of a coming youthquake. Subsequently, however, enrolment numbers have slowed down considerably amongst the young. As of today, the total enrolments of 18-24 year-olds stands at 314,702, out of an estimated eligible population of 460,890, which means that only 68 per cent of this age group has enrolled. This is actually less than this time three years ago.

In addition to the problem of youth not enroling, young people who do enrol often don’t actually vote. Apparently at the last election, the turnout figure for the 18-14 group was only 63 per cent.

In contrast, older voters manage to both enrol in very large numbers, and then turn out to vote. And in 2017, rather than a “youthquake”, we might see a “greyquake” – as Glynn Compton puts it, this could mean “the impact of this potential greyquake could well be compounded as those voters, especially aged over 70, amplify their presence more than normal at the same time as younger voter numbers are down along with their lower turnout” – see: No youthquake yet but there is a greyquake.

Compton has been closely following the enrolment rates of the various age groups, and he is projecting that older voters are increasing their enrolment numbers faster than their younger counterparts. His projections put both groups increasing their turnout: “we might be seeing a youthquake in the order of a 5 point lift, which while still impressive, might not be enough to combat the “greying” of the likely voting base” – see: Youth enrolments up, still more needed and turnout to beat greyquake.

Ultimately this age dimension might determine the electoral outcome. Richard Harman has written about this: “National’s hopes rest on an assumption that Labour’s poll ratings will not be matched by their vote because they are so reliant on under 35 voters who traditionally in New Zealand don’t vote nearly as much as older voters. At the last election, around 38% of voters under 30 did not vote. However, only about 20% of voters over 40 did not vote” – see: Labour closing in on Winston.

Low youth voter enrolment and turnout

This problem has Chris Trotter very worried. He draws a parallel between this year’s seemingly very close election, and another election which was forecast to be very close, but wasn’t: “New Zealand is poised to repeat the circumstances that produced the shock British election result of 2015” – see: Vote!

Here’s Trotter’s main point: “All those young Britons who’d happily told the pollsters that they supported Ed Miliband and Labour were by no means as committed to making their way to a polling-booth and actually voting for them. Older voters, on the other hand, were borderline obsessive when it came to exercising the franchise. And guess what? Around three-quarters of them were Tories. Two years later, back here in New Zealand, the chances of something very similar unfolding are distressingly high.”

Trotter therefore warns the leftwing youth: “Youthquakes are not born of young voters’ stated intentions, they only occur when young people get themselves to a polling station, step into a booth, fill out a ballot-paper, and drop it into a ballot-box. Jacinda will not become prime minister by Millennials liking her on Facebook.

Writing about a potential youthquake, political scientist Richard Shaw of Massey University says “there needs to exist a sizeable but latent chunk of political sentiment ready to be catalysed, or a cohort of voters that might be mobilised in new ways” – see: The new normal in our election? Don’t bet on it.

Shaw isn’t convinced this exists at the moment: “People turn out to vote when they feel invested. For our young people, what is the Brexit equivalent? Increased housing unaffordability? Inequality in the distribution of wealth and income? Creaking superannuation policy? In late September those issues may well swirl together to reverse the historic decline in voting amongst young people in Aotearoa, but typically disenchantment here leads to political disengagement, not the reverse.”

Jack Tame also ponders whether young voters will turnout in very large numbers without any sort of great shock to push them into it. He says: “More than 200,000 eligible voters under the age of 30 didn’t vote in the last election. Under-30s had the lowest turnout of any block. With the polls tight, there are sufficient millennials to decide this year’s election. But I worry they won’t” – see: Millennials – just get out and vote.

Signs of generational change

The media is currently full of stories about youth electoral engagement and disengagement. See, for example, Adele Redmond’s Christchurch students more engaged in election than ever before.

She talked to a number of University of Canterbury students: “They cited education, mental health, tax, housing, climate change, inequality and personality as issues influencing their votes. Stuff spoke to 20 students, many of whom preferred the youthful energy of Jacinda Ardern and local Labour candidates to their “condescending” and “unlikeable” National counterparts.

And for a more scientific approach, see 1News’ Vote Compass: What are New Zealand’s young voters concerned about?

There are also plenty of columnists convinced that we are currently witnessing some sort of generational change at this election. Academic Anne Salmond believes that “After more than thirty years of this kind of hyper-individualism, however, a young, smart generation is stepping up, who think very differently” – see: It’s the end of an era.

And it’s not just liberals making such claims. Martin van Beynen wrote in the weekend, that A changing of the guard is on the way. Although van Beynen’s column – written during his election road trip – is worth reading in full, here’s his main point: “it strikes me that something has indeed shifted in New Zealand. It has obviously been happening for quite a while but sometimes these subterranean societal shifts are hard to detect, especially by people like me who are being left behind. As we approach the closely fought election in which the race is between somebody about my age and someone exactly 22 years younger than me, it’s become clearer that New Zealand is indeed ready to cross over into something new. That’s why I think Jacinda Ardern is going to win the election or at least get more of the party vote than National.”

Also discussing generational change, and explaining many of the important features and terms, Mark Boyd says: “A lot has been written during this election campaign about the generations – Millennial Jacinda vs Baby Boomer Bill; smug oldies in their big houses while their grandchildren can’t afford to buy a house; and even older oldies drawing a universal pension paid for by taxes on their children and grandchildren. But what do these terms, Baby Boomer, Millennial, and the rest, mean?  There’s a lot of disagreement about where they start and end, and they can be confusing” – see: Talkin’ bout my generation – or is it time for the Young Ones?

There should be no doubt that it’s the Labour Party making the best play for the youth vote at the moment. This is nicely explained by Richard Harman: “Labour’s campaign is pitched so intensely at young voters and… the party is happy to have the overall campaign described as a campaign about generational change. This was clear yesterday with the party’s Wellington rally which featured the Phoenix Foundation, the Black Seeds and Fat Freddy’s Drop – a stark contrast to the country music at the NZ First rally on Saturday” – see: Labour closing in on Winston.

Next generation Parliament and Government

In Mark Boyd’s column, he also looks at the ages of the top candidates from the various parties: “Look at the ages of the top six candidates on each party’s list, and you get the picture. National – leader Bill English is 55, average age of his inner circle – 54.  Labour – Jacinda Ardern is 37, the top six average 47.  Their Green fellow travellers average out at 43, led by James Shaw, 44.”

It seems that the next Parliament is going to be much younger. Colin James elaborates on this in detail: “The under-40s will swell in number. So will the lower-40s. Already there are 11 under-40 MPs: four in Labour, including its leader, four in National, two Greens and one in Act New Zealand. On parties’ recent polling averages up to late August that would double to at least 21 – more than one-sixth of Parliament” – see: Changes afoot with younger parliament.

James sees this generation change very positively: “If Labour heads the government in the 2017-20 term, most of its existing top team is under 45 and four are under 40. So Parliament is now not far away from a majority of MPs well clear of the baby-boomers’ long shadow. These people have had different life experiences, think differently and have different policy ambitions.”

But it’s worth remembering that having young politicians doesn’t guarantee a better democracy and the best reminder is seen in Dasha Kuprienko and Debbie Jamieson article, Todd Barclay selling home for large profit before heading overseas.

All the political parties have young activists who are out and about at the moment electioneering, and for a deeper examination of what they’re all about and what they do, see Branko Marcetic’s The hidden power of NZ’s political youth wings. And for a deeper look into one of the more peculiar political youth groups see his investigation into Winston’s children: meet the tempestuous youth wing of NZ First.

Finally, to see how the political leaders fare with questions from the voters of tomorrow, watch last night’s TVNZ episode of Face The Classroom. The second episode screens at 7pm tonight.