Almost 2 million students are eligible to vote in the EU referendum on 23rd June, but a staggering 54% of those asked in a recent poll did not even know in which month it was being held. Of those who are engaging with the process, many will be first-time voters, struggling to get to grips with complex issues in order to exercise their democratic right. However, if they are looking to our country’s leaders for guidance, they will arguably be sorely disappointed. Rather than an informed debate, Brexit has come to be characterised by scaremongering and personal attacks. It is hardly surprising that young voters are confused and disillusioned.
The referendum is a “once in a generation vote” (Richard Brooks, deputy president of the National Union of Students) and the outcome will have the largest impact on the future of young people. According to the Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement in 2016, only 38% of the British public feel knowledgeable about the EU, and those aged 18-24 are likely to be outvoted by those over the age of 65, who are twice as likely to vote.
One of the main reasons that students are not prepared to vote is a lack of information about the issues and the various arguments presented. As well as the mud-slinging between the Leave and Remain campaigns, what has come to be known as the ‘Tory Civil War’ has obscured the real information on the debate.
Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, has referred to the campaign on both sides as “breathtakingly disheartening” due to the number of personal attacks it has sparked: George Osborne accused the Leave campaigners of being “economically illiterate” and Boris Johnson claimed the government used “systematic subterfuge” to portray the nature of Britain’s current relationship with the European Union. These are simply the tip of the iceberg where the debate becoming personal is concerned. Johnson also likened the EU to Napoleon and Hitler in its attempts to unite Europe, showing how scaremongering has proved a barrier to accurate, helpful information – little wonder young people are disengaged.
University students have a lower chance of participating in the referendum as the majority of them live in short-term, rented accommodation, which means registering to vote is significantly harder. Many students would have registered at their term-time address for the May local elections and may not have re-registered with their non-term-time address for the referendum. A recent poll shows that only 56% of students registered at their term-time address are likely to be there to vote on polling day, as it is outside of term time.
Amidst this muddle of information there seems to be a large proportion of people who do not understand that voting will actually change something. A £6.4 million awareness campaign by the Electoral Commission has been launched, including leaflets and TV adverts, and goes some way to increase turnout, but the bombardment of contradictory information and a shortage of hard facts goes much further reversing its work.
I firmly believe that all those who are eligible to vote would be disadvantaging themselves, apart from anything else, if they failed to vote. However, I have every sympathy with those people struggling to form a cohesive opinion on the matter. Those responsible for leading the country before and after the referendum need to put personal agendas and petty squabbles aside in order to engage in informed debate.
Original image by Izzy Docherty.