There are some signs around the world that young people's disengagement from politics is coming to an end - particularly in the recent UK and US elections. Such a "youthquake" seems unlikely to occur here in New Zealand, although an increased youth turnout could have a significant impact on this year's result.

Youth have been increasingly disengaged from electoral politics in New Zealand in recent elections. But what if there was a sudden turnaround in this trend, and young non-voters entered into politics? This happened last week in the British general election, with a "youthquake" having a significant impact on the result. We don't know the exact turnout for young voters, but there have been estimates that it has gone from 44 per cent in 2015 to about 72 per cent this year.

Supposedly, everyone would like to see an increase in youth participation here - in fact it's been one of the big concerns expressed so far about the coming election. The question of how to create a similar youthquake in New Zealand was dealt with this morning on TVNZ's Breakfast, and I was interviewed on the matter - see:

'They need to see politicians speaking about real issues, not sound bites' - how to get young Kiwis engaged in upcoming election.


I argued that the only way we're likely to see anything like the British experience happening here, is if political parties offer meaningful programmes of change that resonate with youth. I also cautioned against making the assumption that youth can be mobilised or drawn into electoral politics simply by parties fielding young candidates. Although it might have some impact, there simply isn't any strong evidence that young people will vote just because party candidates are also young.

And, in fact, some of the most interesting recent examples of politicians creating any sort of significant youth following have actually been "older white men" - such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

For a very interesting commentary on this, see Geoffrey Miller's blog post,

Forget the spaghetti pizzas - it's substance voters are looking for.

Miller argues young people should "Get ready for more spaghetti pizzas, selfies and walkabouts on university campuses", but, as with Dotcom's $4m spent "largely targeting the youth vote", such campaigning can fall on deaf ears if the substance of their politics doesn't resonate.

His conclusion on the British youthquake is this: "The lesson from the surge of young voters for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in the UK is that to get young voters to vote, you need to give them something to vote for. In Corbyn's case, this was a traditional, ideologically-driven left-wing manifesto which included an end to student fees, nationalisation of railways and increasing taxes on the rich."

Miller also takes issue with the assumption "that young voters are attracted by young candidates". He suggests that Winston Peters, by this logic, should be deeply unpopular with youth: "With Peters being 72 and the face of the SuperGold card, most assume New Zealand First has no real hope of attracting a large pool of younger voters. Yet during this year's Orientation Week at Victoria University, Peters reportedly attracted hundreds of students on a summer weeknight to hear him speak. Whether or not Peters is able to add a significant number of young voters to his base remains to be seen, but it seems his age is no barrier to young people at least listening to what he has to offer. This in itself is no mean feat."

Also writing on this issue today, Grant Shimmin of the Timaru Herald asks:


How do the opposition get out the youth vote?

. He cautions against the lessons of the British youthquake having too many parallels here, but like Miller, he draws attention to Labour's 2005 election promise to scrap interest on student loans, as being a core reason for increased turnout that year.

Furthermore, he ponders: "Is it as simple as saying young people feel the system simply doesn't care for them? And therefore, that getting them out is nothing more than a case of showing genuine care about their needs in drafting policy?"

The Example of Britain's youthquake

The British youthquake, and its possible emergence here was covered very well yesterday by Cas Carter in her column, The youth vote that changed Britain's direction. She argues "A political party in New Zealand that uses British Labour Party tactics could well deliver a massive boost to its support and bring young Kiwis to polling booths."

Carter says "This year there are indications New Zealand political parties are waking up to this market, with Labour elevating youth-focused Jacinda Ardern and the Greens announcing a line-up of new youngies high up its party list. But that's not enough to win the youth vote." She points out that in the UK, the demographic qualities of Corbyn were no barrier to youth appeal, and she lists some of the devices and policies that helped create the youthquake.

Ultimately, it's the social, political and economic conditions in the UK that have probably played the biggest part in creating the youth voter surge. Nonetheless, Carter says "While we're not facing issues like Brexit here, there are still matters of huge concern to our young adults: the cost of education and housing, plus environmental sustainability for starters."

But if New Zealand does, somehow, end up with a surge in youth voting, which parties are likely to receive those votes? Blogger Martyn Bradbury gives his assessment - see: Which political party in NZ is best placed to benefit from the Corbyn Youthquake?. Rating their chances out of ten, Bradbury gives the Greens the best chance, with a 9/10 score. He reckons that "by promoting such incredibly talented young women into top positions on their Party list, the Greens are the best positioned political party to generate and build a Corbyn Youthquake."

Bradbury says Labour is next most likely, rating them 7.5/10 - and he puts their strength down to Jacinda Ardern: "You just can't underestimate the popularity that Jacinda has created with the youth vote. She's a totally different generation from most other politicians and young people see her as their ambassador in the halls of power. Her prominence in Labour's election advertising is purposely done because she rates through the roof. She will bring an enormous youth vote that simply hasn't had someone they identify with promoted with such prominence in an election campaign before." Also rated with a decent chance are New Zealand First, Gareth Morgan's TOP, and the Maori Party.

But Chris Trotter has challenged the assumption younger generations really do vote that differently to other age groups - see: Is There A "Youth Vote"?. He argues "In truth, the 'Youth Vote' has never been much more than journalistic shorthand. It was born out of liberal wish-fulfilment and made vaguely plausible by left-wing academics."

Therefore, for Trotter, the assumption that young people will vote Green is mistaken: "So, why the Greens believe that positioning twenty-somethings Jack McDonald and Chloe Swarbrick high on their Party List will attract the support of "Millennials" (the latest journalistic coinage) is anybody's guess. To be young does not necessarily make one Green - just ask David Seymour and Todd Barclay!"

Why youth are disengaged from New Zealand politics

Why do young people lack enthusiasm for politicians and voting? Photo / Michael Cunningham
Why do young people lack enthusiasm for politicians and voting? Photo / Michael Cunningham

Why do young people lack enthusiasm for politicians and voting? There are obviously a variety of reasons.

Here's one account of a young politically engaged university student who is considering not voting this year. Two days ago on Twitter, University of Auckland postgrad student, Justine (@precariatqueer), tweeted her own feelings about her voting choices at this election, after Labour announced its policy of cutting back on immigration numbers: "Literally who can I vote for? I don't feel I have any viable choice this election. I can't vote for reducing immigration by 30,000; I don't want to vote for the Greens because they're no longer interested in being even a vaguely leftist party and opposing austerity; Plus they'll vote alongside labour and presumedly support this policy?; There are no choices this election? I've never felt like abstaining more and I'm a politically involved person; I love that @AndrewLittleMP congratulated @jeremycorbyn and then two days later announced this despicable policy; NZ Labour is not a progressive party, they have no business basking in Corbyn's win they are far removed & a million times less principled; We the young and working class will not come and vote in droves for your snivelling bullshit; You're not inspirational, you're not pledging hope or change, you're cynical and desperate and we see through you."

And in fact, maybe many of the New Zealand youth who feel alienated from official politics, are in fact participating in less mainstream or official politics. This is one of the points made recently by Bronwyn Wood in her column, Young Kiwis more engaged as citizens than we think.

In this, Wood disputes that there is necessarily a "civic deficit" crisis in youth today that needs fixing. She also says that "the 'more civics' brigade" make some false assumptions, including the idea "that young people need more civic knowledge" and "that students currently receive no civics education in New Zealand schools".

How to fix the "youth voting problem"

Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern said
Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern said "Labour would consider lowering the voting age if elected into power this September." Photo / Mark Mitchell

Along with the idea of bringing in more civics education to New Zealand schools, the proposal of reducing the voting age to 16 years is also gaining more momentum. AUT's Judy McGregor recently launched a "Vote@16" campaign, "saying it will allow young people to hold the Government accountable for its actions" - see Katie Doyle's Campaign to lower voting age has Brexit background. Labour's deputy leader Jacinda Ardern is cited as saying that "Labour would consider lowering the voting age if elected into power this September."

But many youth are far from convinced about the idea - see Jen Mead's Why 16-year-olds aren't ready to vote.

In the end, it's probably going to take a rather radical politician that properly engages with young voters - and actually exudes genuine authenticity - to be able to politicise youth in the way that makes for any sort of real youthquake. But it's not clear that there are any politicians in this country with the substance of Corbyn or Sanders.

Arguably, however, there are signs of the social and economic conditions that might cause youth to rebel against their current prospects - see, for example, Emily Spink's news report, 90,000 young Kiwis have no job, no training to go to.

Or maybe it'd just take the right issue to come along that resonates with youth - which is clearly what Gareth Morgan's TOP is hoping for - see Benn Bathgate's Cannabis reform the catalyst for youth vote turnout, claims Gareth Morgan.

Finally, Bernard Hickey says that "baby-boomers shouldn't worry too much about some sort of electoral revolt" - see: Trolling gen-rent easier than getting them to vote. He argues that although a youthquake could have a large impact, it simply isn't on the cards: "In theory, if they voted in a bloc they could exact revenge or try to change the equation by introducing land or capital gains taxes, or voting for a Government that launched a massive house building programme. They could also vote for means testing of NZ Super and healthcare for the generation that owns more than $1 trillion in assets. But that would require Generation Rent to actually become engaged in politics and vote. There are few signs of that."

Ultimately, "There will be no revolt. Just 49 percent of 18-28 year olds actually voted in the 2014 election and young renters voted at even lower rates in council elections. Generation Rent are more interested in The Bachelor than in understanding how politicians and voters are working to keep them as tenants."