The youth vote and the future of Scottish Labour
For many young people in Scotland the experience of summer 2020 went something like this: having had their school exam results downgraded, then adjusted back up again following protests, thousands were encouraged to move from home and into student halls of residence, even though most of their lectures were to take place online.
They were then told, with little notice, that they were to be put into lockdown with some of the strictest restrictions in the country. Then told they could not go home, risked arrest if they did and ordered only to leave their accommodation if they need to work, which for many meant in the high-risk environment of the hospitality sector.
“Why have they sent us here?” one resident of Murano Street Student Village in Glasgow asked on BBC Radio. Some of her peers began organising a rent strike.
Rent, work, education – these are traditionally seen as bread and butter Labour issues and with a fresh intake of politically disgruntled students, this should be a ripe time for the Scottish Labour party to grow its support ahead of next year’s Scottish election.
And yet a widely shared image on social media showing the messages students stuck in their windows hints at part of the problem facing the party. Two names with Facebook-stylised ‘like’ buttons next to them: Boris, thumbs down; Nicola, thumbs up.
Why can’t the Labour party cut through and appeal to young voters?
“The concerns of young people are the concerns of the Labour party,” Keiran O’Neill says.
“And I think that during coronavirus, the way that the Scottish Government has responded to certain challenges facing young people does show that they don’t think we are a priority.”
It is the sort of thing the 22-year-old is obliged to say, given that he is the Scottish Labour and Co-op party candidate for the constituency of Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn in the 2021 Scottish election. But at a time when school leavers and young adults seem to be shouldering more than their fair share of the disruption caused by COVID-19, the argument appears to carry more weight than just the usual pre-election attack lines.
“I think this generation are going to be left with the absolute worst situation,” O’Neill tells Holyrood.
The concerns of young people are the con-cerns of the Labour party
He pointed to the situation of students in Murano Street halls on the edge of the constituency as the latest example of ill-thought through policy hitting young people.
But the challenges facing young people in the work-force, who were most likely to be furloughed and to be in precarious sectors like the hospitality and retail sectors, is also of concern.
“People under the age of 30 generally get the worst deal possible - and it’s because there are no people under 30 in these roles, making decisions,” O’Neill says.
While falling into the category of ‘young person’ himself - he is perhaps the youngest Labour candidate for the next Scottish Parliament - O’Neill is anxious to say that his goal is to represent everybody in his home con-stituency, which has been represented by the SNP’s Bob Doris since 2016.
“I’m not doing it because I want to be ‘the young MSP’,” he says. “I want to be the MSP for Maryhill and Springburn.
“But at the end of the day, there is a representative part of that that I can’t get away from,” he acknowledges.
“Fundamentally,” he says, “I do think the Labour party does offer young folk change.
“And at the end of the day any political party, like ours, which has seen a substantial decline in its support needs to build up new support. A large part of that has to be people under the age of 30 because that’s where we’re going to have to start rebuilding again.”
The trouble is, there isn’t any evidence that this is happening.
One of the more existential challenges facing the party, on top of its generally weak position in opinion polling going into the next election, is that it is not seen as the natural home for young people in Scotland.
“Whereas south of the border Labour dominates the support of younger voters, this is not true north of the border,” says Professor Sir John Curtice, renowned polling expert and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.
“It’s hardly any more popular [in Scotland] among younger voters than it is among older voters,” he says.
Age, above all else, has become the dividing line in UK electoral politics in recent years. The results of the 2019 general election show that the Labour party took the majority of votes among people younger than 39.
“This is no longer a party south of the border that is particularly successful among working class voters,” Curtice says.
“It’s a party of graduates, it’s a party of social liberals, and above all it’s a party of young people south of the border.”
There isn’t a large body of young Scottish Labour voters out there, period. They do not exist.
But in Scotland, it’s the SNP that has benefited most from this dynamic. Support for Scottish independence is most pronounced among younger people, as was also the case for those who voted to remain in the EU in 2016.
A Survation poll published in September showed that more than two thirds of voters under the age of 34 in Scotland would support independence if another referendum was held.
“The problem north of the border is that the combination of support for independence and the ability of the SNP to cobble together the remain vote has meant that the Labour party has not acquired the new electorate that the Labour party has south of the border,” Curtice says.
“There isn’t a large body of young Scottish Labour voters out there, period,” he adds. “They do not exist.”
O’Neill joined Labour during the 2015 leadership campaign that would see Jeremy Corbyn elected party leader, a time when the party experienced an influx of new, often young members. But like many his age, it was during the 2014 independence referendum that he was first drawn into politics.
O’Neill says that he came to the debate as “just your fairly typical,vaguely political teenager” with an initial inclination towards Scotland remaining part of the UK.
But over the course of the campaign he was attracted to the pro-independence side by its promotion of themes of “building a better, fairer society”.
“All the sort of lovely, utopian ideas that when people talk about independence tug at the heartstrings,” he says. When the time came, he cast his vote in favour of independence.
But in the months that followed, he says he became disillusioned with the independence movement generally and the SNP in particular. He’s now of the opinion that Scotland should stay in the UK, albeit under a radically reformed constitutional arrangement.
“My perspective is, as a former Yes voter, that devolution and federalism is the way forward,” he says. “But the Labour party has failed to articulate that,” he concedes.
O’Neill acknowledges that the SNP has “hoovered up” the young vote. But having seen the way that Corbynism energised young voters in England less than one year after the independence referendum occurred, he believes that Labour in Scotland could have experienced a similar surge.
“I do think it was an issue of timing.
“People forget how bad the coalition government was,” he says, “and how much people wanted something better, something diff erent.”
“But we have seen more and more young people come to Labour, especially when they do what I did and get disillusioned with the decisions of the SNP government,” he adds.
Katie Pragnell is the Scottish Labour candidate for Eastwood, going up against former Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw. She’s 23 years old and says that it’s not a given that young people have already made their minds up about who to vote for in May 2021.
“When I talk to young people many of them have not yet formed strong party ties,” she tells Holyrood.
“Many are disillusioned in the wake of the exam fiasco. Even if not directly affected, they recognised the injustice of the situation,” she says.
“Others find themselves facing an uncertain future in the wake of COVID-19 - will they be able to experience university life to the full, or find a job in a shrinking economy?”
Pragnell says the Labour party offers “the best hope and future for young people” and points to policy proposals such as free bus travel for under-25s as a potential vote-winner.
“Statistically, younger people are more likely to be in low paid jobs and precarious work. Free travel would be of great help to them,” she says.
O’Neill says that the Scottish Government has failed throughout the pandemic to give meaningful support to people who live in the private rented sector, many of whom are younger.
I know it’s an issue and I know it makes progressives in the SNP uneasy, so that’s some clear red water, I would say.
He gives the example of the Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill introduced by Labour MSP Pauline McNeill, which would have introduced a cap on rent increases. The bill was dropped by the Local Government and Communities Committee because of concerns over COVID-19 workload and time.
Amendments to the Coronavirus Bill that would have seen a freeze on rent increases and a two-year ban on evictions were also rejected.
In October the Fair Rents bill was picked back up again by the committee, which is seeking views on the bill before the end of the year.
“Labour are on the side of tenants; the SNP are on the side of landlords. I think the coronavirus has shown how clear that is,” O’Neill says.
“The sort of unparalleled support for landlords - there was nothing like that for tenants and I have no idea why that was the case.
“I know it’s an issue and I know it makes progressives in the SNP uneasy, so that’s some clear red water, I would say.”
Curtice describes Labour’s position on Brexit and independence as “could they please just go away”. He says that the party is just much more comfortable speaking about inequality.
But in the years dominated by Brexit and independence, this just doesn’t work.
“This is Labour’s other fundamental problem. It doesn’t really want to talk about the two questions that have dominated our politics for a decade,” he says.
O’Neill agrees that Labour needs to be more proactive on the constitutional debate.
“People say ‘I didn’t get into politics to talk about the constitution’ - and I agree. But it’s a fact of life. We’ve got to have a clear offer.
“I think the problem is that people who want independence want that, and it’s a completely respectable political position to take,” he says. He jokes that among Labour members it is still a coin-toss of hatred between the Tories and the SNP, and independence sympathising Labour members are too often maligned by peers, which he finds counterproductive.
“I think people that are in favour of staying in the UK, we really need to get our act together and come forward with a clear plan for what that looks like.
“Because the UK right now is broken. Boris Johnson is violating international law and is treating devolution with contempt.
“I actually think the biggest enemy for the future of the UK isn’t the SNP or nationalists but it is the Conservative and Unionist party that just thinks it can do what it likes.
“That really has to be challenged.
“Labour used to own the constitutional debate, we absolutely used to own it. And now because of losing power we’re afraid to talk about it. We’re afraid to assert our own [view]. We think we have to be Yes or No.
“I don’t buy that, I’ve never bought that,” he says.
“The problem is, this is just me saying this to a journalist. There has to be an argument won within the party.”
As for the 2021 election, he says: “We’ll throw the kitchen sink at it and see what happens."