Oxford Dictionaries' word of 2017 is political and important – here's why
In June 2017’s general election, against all odds, Labour increased their vote share by the most it had in 70 years, turning what was expected to be a landslide victory for the Tories into a hung parliament and a catastrophic embarrassment for the Prime Minister. The shocking result was thanks in large part to the 16 per cent spike in votes from 18- to 24-year-olds, and was dubbed “youthquake” – a term coined in the 1960s by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Today “youthquake” became Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year – but how did the youthquake happen, and what does it mean for the UK’s future?
In the red corner, a manifesto that offered young people: free university tuition; a voting age of 16; the return of Education Maintenance Allowance; banning of unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts; the avoidance of the dreaded Hard Brexit; cheaper train fares; a ban on fracking; 100,000 homes to be built in a year; higher taxes on the rich; counselling for young people in school, to improve children’s mental health. In the blue corner: better access to mental health care in schools, ‘improved technical education’ for students wishing to follow non-academic alternatives, and new institutes of technology focussing on science, technology, engineering and maths. The choice was clear.
On the one hand there were stars like Professor Green, Big Narstie, Maverick Sabre and more simply encouraging young people to register to vote, and then vote, in the election – they weren’t saying who for. On the other, there were tons of grime stars – JME, AJ Tracey, Stormzy, Novelist, Awate, Maxsta and many more – throwing their support behind Jeremy Corbyn and his manifesto, stirring up the interest of young voters. “The Labour Party strongly support the youth in following their dreams and giving people a chance,” Tracey said in an official Labour campaign video. Joining them were many other stars. Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell joined team Labour for a campaign vid. Rag’n’Bone Man told Channel 4 that he was voting for the first time, and had chosen Labour for Corbyn: “I’ve seen a man that speaks with passion,” he said. Other stars supporting Labour included Robert Webb, Akala, Chewing Gum‘s Michaela Coel, Catastrophe‘s Rob Delaney, Sleaford Mods, Eddie Izzard, Lily Allen, Rag’n’Bone Man, Goldie, and even the big man himself, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s very own Danny DeVito. Virtually no one in the entertainment world came out on the Tories’ side.
Appearing on the covers of national magazines including NME and Kerrang!, Corbyn broadcast his inspiring message of hope to a huge audience of young people, while Theresa May hid from interviews, choosing not to reveal her plan for Brexit, and refusing to take part in the TV debates even after Corbyn issued her a personal challenge to do so. “I want [young people] to have opportunities for the future,” Corbyn told NME. “That means we have to invest, that means we’ve got to share the wealth more fairly.” That message struck a chord.
Viral campaigns like GE2017.com showed students where their vote would have the most impact: at university, or in their home constituency. But it wasn’t just young voters’ tactical voting that impacted the result: research shows that tactical voting doubled since 2015, scoring 2017’s election the second highest level of voter volatility since the inter-war years, and highlighting the benefits of electoral reform.
Digital strategists say that Labour won the ‘social media election’, reaching young “digital native” voters with Corbyn’s viral speeches, and an avalanche of voter-created memes. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron went viral for what were considered problematic beliefs, and Theresa May floundered under both her robotic “strong and stable” mantra and unforgettably lifeless moments such as her “naughty” admission to running through fields of wheat as a child. Following the election, Corbyn told NME: “Whilst a number of the print media where incredibly hostile to Labour and individuals on our front bench team – John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and myself – in reality social media has far greater reach. Those who follow Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and so on really helped to get the message across and it certainly resulted in the voter registration that was so important, with probably two million people registering to vote in the last two weeks before the election.”
The election result was a huge shock. Stats showed that turnout had risen to a 25-year high, with the number of 18-24 voters up by 16 per cent, and an increase in BME voters by 6 per cent. Under Corbyn, Labour achieved its largest increase in vote share since Clement Attlee in 1945, with 60 per cent of 18-24s choosing to vote Labour. The resulting hung parliament was a slap in the face for the Prime Minister, who had called the election in order to strengthen her majority and thereby strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. Young people in Britain said no, and she was forced to make a £1bn deal with the DUP, an anti-progressive party from Northern Ireland.
A year after Glastonbury woke up to the Brexit result – which 83 per cent of attendees had voted against – Corbyn arrived to reignite its audience’s hopes, drawing one of the weekend’s largest crowds. Delivering a hugely impressive speech to the crowd, Corbyn looked every bit the leader. “Understand the power we’ve got to achieve that decent, better society,” he told the thousands-strong crowd, “where everyone matters and those poverty stricken people are enriched in their lives and the rest of us are made secure by their enrichment.” A few months later, Corbyn pulled ahead of Theresa May to become voters’ new favourite for Prime Minister.
In November’s Autumn Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond offered a series of concessions to young people in what looked like a bid to impress young voters and reverse the detrimental effects of June 2017’s youthquake. The most readily useful of these was the ‘Millennial Railcard’, which extended the 30-percent-off benefits of the 16-25 railcard to 26- to 30-year-olds, starting early 2018; stamp duty was axed for first-time buyers on properties up to the value of £300k, allowing young people a better shot at the property ladder, while help-to-buy has been extended for the same group; while duty rates on beer, cider, wine and spirits have been frozen.
64 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the EU Referendum of 2016, and three-quarters of them voted against Brexit. Young people aren’t fans, and the harder the Brexit, the more opposed they are. Britain went into the Brexit negotiations with a very hard Brexit on the cards: it tried to secure trade talks ahead of matters such as the Irish border, the divorce bill, and the issue of EU27 citizens’ rights in the UK following Brexit. It has now embarrassingly caved on all these matters, meaning it is now able to move onto the second stage: the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Theresa May has said she still intends to leave the single market and customs union – a hard Brexit – but rebels in Parliament (many Tories, such as the pictured Anna Soubry among them) have ensured that Parliament will have a final say on Brexit, weakening May’s authority. The youthquake is responsible for engendering an environment in which May stands on shaky ground in her own government – her majority is just 13 thanks to the result of the election – meaning her hard stance on Brexit doesn’t have to be final.
Ahead of the 2017 general election, NME noted that five important Tory MPs could be ousted if the youth vote doubled in their constituencies. That didn’t happen, but their majorities were slashed: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge majority halved, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s Hastings majority shrank from 4796 to just 346. The next election could be years away, but Momentum’s Unseat campaign is applying the same logic to eight Tory constituencies, preparing for the next election by canvassing in marginal constituencies where Tory MPs could be ousted – with a view to further undermining May’s paltry majority in the future. Alongside Corbyn’s politics of hope, there’s a sense that young people can effect real change, and that kind of resolute, David vs Goliath spirit is exactly what the ‘youthquake’ is all about.