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Contrasting Political Tides: Exploring the Divergent Voting Intentions of Young Adults in the UK and EU

This is a year of great political significance in Europe. As the UK waits to lock in a date for its next General Election, the EU is gearing up for the European Parliament Elections, as well as four more presidential and five parliamentary elections in its member countries, some of which are expected to result in a clear shift of direction in government and/or policy.

In the dynamic world of politics, the voting intentions of young adults (aged 18 to 25) present a striking contrast between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and 2024, with its array of elections, offers a prime opportunity to observe this curiosity. While young Britons often align with left-wing parties, their counterparts across the EU increasingly embrace right-wing movements such as national populism. Understanding this contrast unravels a tapestry woven from socio-economic circumstances and cultural undercurrents that shape the political leanings of the younger generation on either side of the English Channel.


In the United Kingdom, young voters are clearly inclined towards left-wing parties, such as the Labour Party and the Green Party, with almost 80% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 intending to vote for these two parties[1]. This trend has been particularly evident in recent general and local elections and referendum votes. Rooted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, this inclination stems from a sense of disillusionment with conservative austerity measures. These policies, which are perceived to benefit the wealthy elite while exacerbating social inequalities, have pushed young Britons to embrace alternative narratives that emphasise social justice and economic equity.


Moreover, issues such as climate change, social justice, and affordable housing have resonated strongly with younger generations, aligning them ideologically with left-wing platforms that prioritize environmental sustainability, social welfare, and progressive values. The Labour Party, under leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, has actively courted young voters by championing these causes and presenting itself as a progressive alternative to the Conservative Party.


Young voters in EU countries, on the other hand, have increasingly gravitated toward right-wing parties and movements, owing to a combination of factors specific to their respective national contexts.[2] Economic anxieties resulting from stagnant wages, job insecurity, and competition within the European Single Market have fuelled resentment towards established political elites and mainstream parties perceived as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.


National populism, characterized by its staunch anti-immigration stance, Euroscepticism, and emphasis on national identity, has gained momentum among disillusioned youth seeking to challenge established political norms. Parties like Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France (47.4% of voters aged 18-24 intended to vote for Le Pen in the second round of the 2022 Presidential elections[3]), Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (obtained 23% share of the 18-21 age group in a 2021 Tecnè poll[4]), George Simion’s Alliance for the Union of Romanians (got 36% of voters aged 18-30 expressed their intention in a 2022 Avantgarde poll[5]), and Laszlo Toroczkai's Our Homeland in Hungary (got 22% share of the voting intention of the 18-29 age group in a 2023 Coninver poll[6]) have capitalized on these concerns, positioning themselves as defenders of national identity and traditional values against the perceived threats of globalization and multiculturalism.


Moreover, the impact of social media cannot be overstated in shaping the political preferences of young voters on both sides of the Channel. Platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have emerged as battlegrounds for competing narratives, where echo chambers amplify ideological viewpoints and shape perceptions of reality. While left-wing parties in the UK have leveraged social media to mobilize grassroots campaigns and engage young voters, right-wing movements in the EU have adeptly used these platforms to disseminate nationalist rhetoric and challenge mainstream narratives.


These disparate patterns in young voters' intentions to vote are indicative of two key concepts. First, it should be noted that a party's political philosophy alone does not always draw in young voters. Rather, what matters is that the ideology be perceived as novel and challenge established norms, as well as long-standing powers. The youth is merely looking for hope that what looks like a badly dealt card can be turned around. Secondly, in the event that right-wing movements among Europe's youth voters continue to gain traction, there is a risk that this would undermine not only the EU's internal operations but also the future of UK-EU ties.


As populist sentiments gain momentum, there is a risk of increased polarization within EU member states and strained relations between Brussels and national governments. This could potentially undermine the cohesion and effectiveness of EU institutions, complicating efforts to address common challenges such as climate change, migration, and economic disparities. This is already likely to have significant ramifications in July, as the European Council on Foreign Relations fears a right-wing populist coalition of Christian democrats, conservatives, and radical right MEPs could emerge with a majority for the first time within the European Parliament after this year’s elections.


In the context of EU-UK relations, the divergence in political preferences among young voters underscores the complexity of post-Brexit dynamics. While young Britons continue to embrace left-wing values and advocate for progressive policies, their EU counterparts may increasingly align with right-wing movements sceptical of further European integration. This could impact the negotiation of future trade agreements, cooperation on security and defence, and broader diplomatic relations between the UK and EU member states.


Ultimately, navigating these divergent political currents will require proactive efforts to bridge ideological divides, foster dialogue, and address the underlying socio-economic grievances driving political polarization. Failure to do so risks exacerbating tensions within the EU and complicating efforts to build constructive partnerships between the UK and its European neighbours in the years to come.


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