• Christian Smith is a 24 year old lawyer living in Auckland. He has a BA in history and politics and an LLB from the University of Otago.

It was the perfect storm. Labour, the traditional home of the youth vote, had a new, young, charismatic and progressive leader. Youth issues were amongst the most important of the 2017 election. In the UK this year, a 15 per cent increase in turnout of voters aged 18-24 had transformed the election and proved to millennials around the world their votes could make a difference.

While in recent elections, New Zealand's young people had been about as successful at turning out to vote as the Warriors' defence with a 22-point lead, if they were ever going to break tradition and cast a ballot, 2017 would be the year.

Unfortunately for New Zealand's left, it seems the much-hyped "youthquake" didn't register. While we won't have the exact turnout statistics for several weeks, enrolment numbers usually give a good indication. There's certainly nothing to cheer about. Final numbers show enrolment of those under 30 as a percentage of eligible voters has fallen slightly from 2014. Unless there was a huge increase in the turnout of young people enrolled, which seems unlikely, it looks like about half of young people will have failed to vote.

Advertisement

So it begs the question: where was the rumbling rise in young voters?

Let's start with a viable, but rather depressing, analysis that's staring us in the face: about half of our young people still just don't care enough to turn up to vote.

This was no ordinary election. Youth issues were more critical than they had been in a generation. New Zealand's youth suicide rate is the worst in the OECD. Mental illness, particularly among young people, is rising at an alarming rate. The New Zealand dream of owning your own home has been crushed and replaced with Generation Rent. The minimum wage is low, the cost of living is high, and post-school training and education is expensive. Other traditional youth issues, in particular child poverty and climate change, are at crisis points.

Unlike in the past, we can't blame poor youth marketing. The effective social media tactics Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party used to engage millennials appeared widespread. Not for profit groups such as ActionStation and RockEnrol campaigned tirelessly to increase the youth vote. The Electoral Commission flooded social media with advice on how to register to vote.

Election coverage included a youth debate and classroom addresses. Radio stations popular with the under 30s had regular political guests in the lead up to September 23. Radio Hauraki even ran a "No sleep 'till polling" segment the day before the election. You really had to go out of your way to avoid this election.

However, it seems it is still too much effort for some to head to register and vote in a democratic process others around the world are literally killing to have.

While this could suggest a worrying level of apathy, it could also signal just how ingrained the long-term causes of poor youth turnout are.

One of those causes is that issues were overstated. We all know the narrative. In the eloquent words of Gareth Morgan on election night, the millennial generation has been getting "screwed" by the rest of the country. But did young voters themselves believe the issues were so vitally important?

Advertisement

The appeal of Corbyn to youth was that, unlike his rivals, he offered answers to the problems young people faced. The same can be said for both National and Labour's youth policies. They had substance. They were offering genuine solutions. Among other examples, Jacinda Ardern's support for an overhaul of the mental health system and an easier ride for first-home buyers, and Bill English's pledge to lift 100,000 children out of poverty, meant addressing youth issues was central to the campaign. And yet, youth turnout still didn't increase.

So there's another possible, rather awkward, conclusion that could be drawn: the issues were not important enough to change the habit of about half of young New Zealanders. Those young British voters who marched to the polls in June were still reeling from Brexit, the socio-economic impact of the global financial crisis and seven years of Tory austerity. The tripling of student fees in 2010 and the resulting London riots were still raw in the memory of young voters.

There is a strong sense of resentment among young people towards the older generations in Britain. Experts now see the generational split, not class, as the principal dividing line in British society. That level of inter-generational animosity simply doesn't exist in this country. While there are generational differences, they aren't dramatically worse than in other generations.

At the end of the day, politicians are just talking heads. Many young people say they aren't going to vote because it won't make any difference. All politicians are the same, so why bother supporting any of them?

A key factor in the increased youth turnout in Britain was the gaping hole between what British Labour and the Conservatives were offering young people. Jeremy Corbyn offered a vastly different vision to a society that had just been shaken to its core. In contrast, by the end of the New Zealand election the gap between Labour and National's youth policies, while not small, was no longer decisive. For many, the difference eventually came down to whose plan would work better, not who understood the issues better.

The irony for Labour is that Jacindamania and Labour's policies on youth forced National to engage on issues they had been happy to ignore for nine years. Consequently for young people, the difference between a National-led future and a Labour one became less dramatic.

Despite all that negativity there is something to keep in mind. In the US presidential election last year, about half of those under 30 voted. In the 2015 UK election, 43 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted. In 2017, that rose to 58 per cent. In Canada's 2015 election, 57 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted, a huge increase on the 39 per cent of 2011.

In New Zealand where, comparatively, social conflict is low and so the entire population's scope for apathy is high, our youth turnout could be worse. But, and I don't mean to sound too much like the Labour Party, we can do better.