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UK referendum: first time voters, get out and vote

Here are two important facts which will affect the UK's referendum on its membership of the European Union:

  1. There are 1.5 million new voters at the next general election who will be too young to vote at the referendum on 23 June 2016.
  2. In the last five UK general elections, turnout amongst under 25 year olds has been 15-25 percentage points below the average turnout in older age groups.

The first fact gives pause for thought. The second fact is concerning both on the part of new voters and of the politicians who have failed to engage them.

Together, these two facts illustrate that more people are impacted by the vote than may be obvious at first glance. There is responsibility on those who can vote to do so with the future in mind. And there is responsibility on new voters who in the past may not have been as engaged on the issues or as motivated by the debate as they may need to be.

Raising the standard of debate

It is the responsibility of national politicians on both sides of the campaign to raise the standard of debate, appeal to young and first time voters, and inform them with facts (not shaky projections, misleading myths like 'straight bananas', personal attacks, or negative campaigning).

There have been helpful interventions from Michael Gove (who explained that neither the Norway or Swiss models would be suitable fits for a future trade relationship between the UK and the EU) and Gordon Brown (who set out in the Financial Times what he described as a ‘positive case’ for remaining in the EU).

But helpful interventions have been few and far between. For example, prominent Leave campaigner Boris Johnson reaction to Mr Obama’s comments, and Mr Heseltine’s attack on Mr Johnson did neither party any credit and served only to turn off voters from the issues at hand.

To some extent, young voter attention is beginning to waver because the run up to the vote is much longer than a general election. While the press chews over every detail, the voting public is continually assailed by claim and counter claim.

The Leave campaign could usefully describe what parts of UK law will be removed to alleviate what is often referred to as the administrative burden on business. The Remain campaign could do more to enthusiastically praise the virtues of EU membership and the benefits it has brought to the UK. Younger voters are less concerned by sovereignty and immigration than their elders.

They are more concerned about the UK’s place in the world, how the UK interacts with its neighbours and partners, cooperation and collaboration, and what sort of country they want the UK to be. There should be more debate about the vote’s impact on funding of British universities, their research programmes, and their ability to attract the best students internationally.

An important economic issue

The referendum is the single most important issue for the UK economy for the last 40 years – since the first UK referendum – and probably the most important economic issue for the next 40 years. The result's impact will be felt by our children, their children, and their children’s children. In the event of a vote to leave the EU, by some estimates, the exit agreement and the attendant trade negotiations should just about be finished by the time the voting newcomers are preparing to vote in their third general election.

The rights to free speech and a democratic vote are not available in large parts of the world and should be respected in the UK. The low turnout stats reflect badly on today’s youngsters, implying apathy towards politics, disillusionment or even stereotypical laziness.

So come on first time voters, get up, get engaged and go and vote.

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