I took a break from blogging last week because I was visiting Madrid, but the good news is that it has given me a valuable theme to cover this week. Rather than a departure from writing on technology, sex and cities, think of this article as a different take on technology and social media.
Turn on the television, or open any newspaper (I am trying and failing to stop myself from yet again adding “or should that be swiping on your tablet?”) and you’ll see acres of coverage of the upcoming European Referendum. Staying with my friends in Madrid really hammered home to me the enormity of what is approaching this month: a full-scale national referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union.
As you can imagine, those I talked to in Madrid were already sick of the debate. After all, Britain has for a long time been a rather reserved partner in what has otherwise been a dedicated, if not enthusiastic, European vision – Greek meltdown notwithstanding. Thus even the possibility of a permanent split does nothing to enamour our European neighbours to Britain, a country that has for so long been a dissenting voice in the European movement. Underneath their irritation at our British exceptionalism, Madrileños also spoke of the anxiety that Brexit prompted for their own futures. If Britain leaves, how will it affect the dynamic of the Union? Will other countries take a similarly revanchist view of union, and will anyone really be able to view Europe as a cohesive unit? This is to say nothing of Britain’s own future: sterling already weak in anticipation, let alone realization, of Brexit; new visa policies by a clueless government; inevitably a Conservative-led decoupling from the vitally important European declaration of Human rights.
Make no mistake – Britain hasn’t made itself popular by pursuing the referendum. A decisive vote to ‘Remain’ might show European neighbours, as well as our own government, that we are committed to a European future. Anything other than a close call looks optimistic, judging by any one of the most recent polls (and lest we forget, polling companies have been feeling the heat from a disastrous track record in polling efficacy). But a vote to remain in the union is entirely possible, and it relies on young voters.
At midnight last night, the opportunity to register online in time to vote for the EU referendum passed. This being Britain, it couldn’t happen without some fiasco, in this case the electoral commission website breaking down from a last-minute rush (over half a million people, according to Gizmodo) to register. What surprised me was the response to this on Twitter: lots of normally open-minded, relaxed people saying that those who registered so late deserved everything they got, and should not counted. Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow’s suggestion that the registration period be extended to allow those caught in the glitch to complete their registration was met with howls of protest from many, who had registered well in advance and felt somehow put-upon by those sloppy latecomers who hadn’t organised themselves.
Such an approach seems unfair to me. They may have left it late, but whether 5 minutes before the deadline or 5 months before, a vote’s a vote. They weren’t to know that the website would crash. Indeed, some pointed out that for them the website actually failed throughout the evening, rather than the final few minutes. And ultimately it is human nature to leave things until the last minute. The fact remains that these late voters applied for registration within the allotted period.
If you know me you’ll understand my sympathy for these users because I’m often this last-minute person, in life if not in national politics. I would guess that, like myself, almost all of these late voters were aged 18-35. Younger people are significantly more pro-EU, with 59% of 18-24 year olds and 49% of 25-49 year olds intending to vote ‘Remain’ in today’s YouGov poll. This contrasts with 35% of 50-64 year olds voting to remain, and fewer still amongst those aged over 65, of whom 57% conversely are planning to vote ‘Leave’ (hope you enjoyed the golden period of European travel, older folks).
That is why the internet can be so useful. On Friday, Facebook published a post to all users reminding them to remember to register for the EU referendum before the looming deadline. In a stunning display of social media ‘nudge’ politics, hundreds of thousands of voters registered that same day, including 155,000 Facebook users aged under 45. The infamous Lad Bible, as well as Uber and Deliveroo, are also encouraging their (generally young, professional, urban) audiences to vote. Lad Bible in particular has been flying the flag (no pun intended) for voter registration, possibly part of its massive rebrand away from boobs and beer to become a less-gendered, viral content host (if so, it’s working: read this excellent Guardian piece on the changes). Even Prime Minister David Cameron “joined Tinder last month to encourage young voters ‘swipe right’ when it comes to registering”, points out DigiMag, poker-faced. I hope that didn’t make you vomit up your lunch. In the name of all that is holy, how did it come to this?
But this brings me on to an important point: in a surprise to absolutely no-one who’s been watching hopeless British mainstream politics for the past few years, young people are still proportionately less likely to register to vote, and thus less likely to vote, in local and general elections. Why bother, many think, when such change is promised yet so little does? Arguments that participating via a vote does at least mean you get your say don’t really wash – believe me, I try it every time.
Further, what many otherwise on-the-ball critics overlook is that British politics remains confusing and often willingly difficult to understand, especially when it comes to first-past-the-post rules, seat counts, and local vs. national responsibilities. One of the better things about this referendum (and the field isn’t exactly crowded with them) is that the remain/leave decision required from voters is eminently clear. Alas, the information needed for them to furnish a decision either way has been less so. Amongst endless media coverage, the fact that 16% of 18-24 years registered to vote don’t know which way they will vote has largely gone unnoticed. It is here that campaigners (and I include normal people, like yourself) can make the most difference. We need to start conversations with our friends, family, students and colleagues that help furnish them with the information they need to make an informed decision – because an informed decision would likely be to ‘Remain’.