‘I feel strangely optimistic’: meet the first time voters

More than a million people have registered to vote for the first time on 8 June. We ask new voters how they feel about having their say

On a Wednesday evening in Walsall, near Birmingham, people from a local temple were handing out chips and beans to anyone who was homeless, or hungry, or both. They expected to reach 100 meals within an hour; four years ago, it was more like 20.

In the queue, one twentysomething told me his benefits money had already run out, leaving him penniless until next Monday. I asked him about the election. “I don’t really know about politics, if I’m honest,” he said. “As soon as I hear Brexit, I switch off.” But you’re living out the consequences of politics. “I know,” he replied. “I’m living in poverty. I’m not an idiot. I’m struggling.” He had never voted before, but probably would this time – even if he hadn’t yet chosen a party: “My dad’s saying Conservative, my mum’s saying Labour.”

He’s not alone in planning to vote for the first time in this election. Along with those who have recently come of age are others who have become politically engaged since last year’s referendum, or become UK citizens as a result of it. And what a strange election this has turned out to be: a country divided and increasingly insecure, but a contest many are claiming to be a foregone conclusion, dominated by a prime minister who insists “the country is coming together” under her “strong and stable” government. Having spent the last month travelling around the country, such rhetoric rings laughably hollow. What most people crave is not the firm thwack of May’s leadership, but a certainty about the future that currently seems beyond their reach.

Many people I spoke to have long since switched off. But among first-time voters, there seems to be a new sense that politics matters and that voting is imperative. We all know about the generational divide exposed by the referendum, in which 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted remain and 60% of over-65s backed leave. Resentment over that imbalance lingers: many young people realise that if they don’t make their voices heard, further injustices await.

Concerns abound about the numbers of people who are still not on the electoral roll; but since the election was called, 1.5 million people aged under 35 have registered to vote. Of course, even if turnout across the generations was the same, there are larger numbers of older voters. But still, something is up among younger voters, and it could hold the key to seats spread across the country.

Meanwhile, the gap between the “stronger Britain” and “prosperous future” promised by the ruling party and the realities of millions of lives seems to grow at speed. For all the anxiety that surrounds it, Brexit seems a certainty. Given that a Conservative win seems almost as likely, the grim nitty-gritty of millions of lives – job insecurity, debt, the impossibility of getting on the property ladder – looks set to remain unchanged.

Yet people are determined to make their voice heard, with an attitude captured by a student I met in Bristol. What she said spoke not of the revolutionary dreams my friends and I used idly to discuss, but hard-headed pragmatism. “You have to vote,” she said. “Because if you don’t, things will only get worse.”

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‘I feel a surge of hope for a better future’: Violet Daniels, 19, student, York, Labour

I just missed out on being 18 for the last general election, but I’d have voted Labour. My mum was a single parent for most of my life, and I come from a working-class background, which shaped my views. My close family are all Labour supporters, but it has never been forced upon me.

I feel strangely optimistic about voting, and don’t think we should take the polls seriously. They didn’t predict the last general election or Brexit; the will of the people is hard to predict. Labour supporters need to be more optimistic and focus on winning the election, rather than being negative about Jeremy Corbyn. I think Labour’s online campaigning really appeals to young people. A good way of increasing engagement generally would be opening up PMQs to allow young people to ask questions. And school visits. I’d have loved to have had a politician visit my school or sixth form.

This is very much a Brexit election. I voted remain. I believe that, under a Labour government, we’ll get the best possible outcome in terms of keeping an open relationship with the EU. Britain is such a small country, and we’ve relied on EU imports since the 15th century. I want to have a future I can rely on, I want to be able to access free healthcare and I want my eventual children to have a good education.

It’s hard for young people to stay positive right now. We’re constantly bombarded with conflicting information: we only have to look in our pockets for the latest disaster in the news. But I feel this huge surge of hope and desire to fight for a better future.

Most of my friends will be voting, but I know an awful lot of people who won’t. They claim their vote won’t make a difference, that “all politicians are the same”, and that they don’t feel educated enough. It’s incredibly frustrating, because there’s no excuse whatsoever for not voting. Nowadays, we have all the information at our fingertips; it takes only a small amount of time to educate yourself.

‘I refused to vote in the referendum, but May is the best of the bunch’: Tom Page, 20, student and DJ, Hull, Conservative

Tom Page
Tom Page: ‘Whatever I vote now will affect me in five years: when I’m in my mid-20s and can get a mortgage.’ Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

Being socialist and liking Jeremy Corbyn is the “in” thing, but I think he’s divided the party and there’s this blurred line of antisemitism that hasn’t been cleared up, which bothers me.

A lot of young people don’t know what they’re voting for; I don’t think they understand the economy or how the country works. People say, “I voted for David Cameron” – well, no, you didn’t, this is not America. I studied A-level economics and learned about budget deficits, free markets, aggregate demand, aggregate supply, that sort of stuff. In the last election – I just missed the cut-off point to vote – my big issue was that you can’t spend your way out of a recession, and now the deficit is not as big as it was. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, financially, for any of us, but if we’re in an economic environment that’s thriving rather than in recession, it might be a bit easier. Whatever I vote now will affect me in five years: when I’m in my mid-20s and can get a mortgage. I refused to vote in the referendum on the grounds that I couldn’t decide. Both sides were dreadful: it became bigotry versus a load of rampant socialists. If they’d said, “If we leave, we’ll have a general election to come up with policies”, I’d have voted leave.

I collect vinyl which comes from the States, so exchange rates are a big issue for me. Lately, when I’ve bought a $130 record, it’s closer to £130 than £100. But when the snap election was called, the pound went up and it cost me less overnight. Little things like that make a difference. I feel Theresa May is the best of the bunch to do it. I think they’re securing a better economic future for Britain, she’s got her party behind her and I think she’ll win. I know she looks like a head teacher, but at the end of the day, do I want her doing the job or Corbyn?

‘I became a citizen, had a cream tea and then registered to vote’: Debbie Hoult, 62, retired, Beaconsfield, Conservative

Debbie Hoult
Debbie Hoult: ‘It’s a time to become more informed if one wants to vote.’ Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

I’m an American but I’ve been living in Britain for 26 years. My husband is English – I’m a chemist and he’s a physicist – but I had no reason to apply for citizenship; I had indefinite leave to remain.

It did aggrieve me many times over the years that I had taxation without representation. The time I was most frustrated was with HS2 – I don’t see that money needs to be spent so that people in Birmingham can get to London 20 minutes faster. It will destroy a lot of natural beauty, and I think the money would be better spent elsewhere, be it education or the NHS. I had no way of voicing that.

I have an American friend who’d also lived here for about 25 years and she’d never got around to getting citizenship either, so we did it together. We did the test in August 2015, and you then have to apply for citizenship within two years. I woke up the day after Donald Trump was elected, and texted, “Right, we’ve got to get British citizenship.” I became a citizen on 25 April. We went for a lovely cream tea, then I went home and online to register to vote. It’s empowering.

I wanted to remain because I wanted my children to have the choice of easily living in any other European country, and I feel that immigrants absolutely add value to this country – I would say that, because I’m an immigrant myself. But the referendum won’t affect how I vote now, because I see it as a legal fait accompli. I think my vote should be for whoever I feel will endeavour to find an equitable solution for the British people and the Europeans who live here.

I will probably vote Conservative, because I think as a leader Theresa May appears – through the BBC and the Telegraph – to be a firm person to get a good solution. I mention those news outlets to note my probable bias: although I would hope that news agencies are unbiased I know very well that they’re not.

I think it’s a time of great anger, fear and change in the world; it’s a time to become more informed if one wants to vote. I don’t think anyone can bleat if they don’t act.

‘I’m excited – I thought I’d have to wait another three years’: Isabel Blankfield, 18, student, St Albans, Liberal Democrat

In the last general election, I was too young to vote. It’s exciting, because I thought I’d have to wait another three years. This is a good opportunity to galvanise young people to vote and take part in debate, no matter what their views are.

I’m studying modern languages, so I have to do a year abroad, and obviously Brexit will affect that. I think that’s where a lot of young people feel personally affected, rather than issues like taxes. I feel I’m expected to follow my parents’ views or those that would be suited to my position, for example being from a well-off family to support the Conservatives – which I don’t.

Like three-quarters of young people, I was really for remain, but the result won’t necessarily affect whom I vote for. I think what’s called for is solidarity among people who feel short-changed, rather than voting in order to change a decision that’s been made.

My constituency often comes very close between the Lib Dems and Tories. While I’m not particularly enthralled by Lib Dem policies, that will probably be the way I vote. Ever since I’ve become politically engaged, I’ve considered myself quite Labour. I’m really trying to focus on the policies rather than people, but I think disillusionment with Jeremy Corbyn is growing among people my age. When he was first elected, I was really excited. I went to the refugee rally he ran that day, but my optimism hasn’t necessarily come to fruition. Although he’s a man with a lot of integrity, I don’t feel he’s done that much. I thought he’d bring about radical change. Protesting outside parliament when he could actually be going in and doing something from within kind of sums him up. But people like Sadiq Khan and Yvette Cooper give me faith in the party.

On the one hand, this political moment is overwhelming and frustrating, but on the other it’s great: I turned 18 three days before the referendum, so in a year I’ve had that, local elections and now a general election. So while it’s not necessarily positive, it’s exciting to have the chance to use my democratic right so frequently.

‘I didn’t vote in the referendum. I thought it would easily be remain’: Johnny Anthonio, 31, personal trainer, Milton Keynes, Labour

Johnny Anthonio
Johnny Anthonio: ‘Brexit is a big part of why I’m voting.’ Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

I wish I’d voted last time, but felt I couldn’t change it because I’m just one voice. But if everyone thought like me, no one would vote. I didn’t vote in the referendum, either, because I thought it would easily be remain, just like I thought it would easily be Hillary Clinton. The world is shocking me right now. I thought we were all on the same wavelength, but we’re not.

Brexit is a big part of why I’m voting, but also I like Labour’s policies of quality for all, rather than the rich taking everything and the rest getting bits. I realise it’s probably an empty vote and won’t affect what actually happens. I’m not sure how good a leader Jeremy Corbyn would be, but I might as well have a voice. You’re never 100% sure they’re actually going to stick to their policies anyway.

I feel like it’s the old versus the young sometimes, and they’re not voting for what I would want for my future. I have two kids, aged six and two, and when they go to university I’m going to have to spend so much more, when politicians promised tuition fees wouldn’t change.

Being a personal trainer, I meet loads of different people, and they tell me how they think I should vote. I remember when Corbyn came to Milton Keynes, it was good to see a politician in my area. Thousands of people were gathered there and I could see him on the stage from the gym where I work. When Labour brought out their manifesto, maybe it was just the first time I was paying attention, but their policies were clear, and suit what I want to hear. From everything I’ve listened to him say, he’s working for every man, not just the rich. I know I’m not poor, but I grew up much poorer than I am now, and I would love everyone to be able to experience not having to struggle to make ends meet.

‘Brexit was scary. Donald Trump was super-scary. It’s a stressful time’: David Kurtz, 44, senior quantitative analyst, London, Liberal Democrat/Labour

David Kurtz
David Kurtz: ‘I just go for the one who feels closest to my ideas.’ Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

I’m from France. I’ve been living here for 10 years and I acquired British citizenship a couple of months ago, just in time to vote. I wanted to be Brexit-free and able to stay here whatever happens, because I’ve put down roots.

I live in Wandsworth and think the borough is very Tory, so I’m not sure my vote will have a lot of impact, but I will vote anyway. In recent times there have been so many surprises – we expect Theresa May to get a landslide, but maybe not.

The referendum is definitely affecting my vote. It was such a shock, like waking up with a very bad hangover. The impression I get from May is that she doesn’t know what she’s going to do. Honestly, Brexiteers look a bit mad: they sound confident they’ll get their way, but the feedback from the EU is that there’s a very different point of view there. In France, people can’t see the point of it. I hope someone, maybe May, will project the idea that they have a grip on the reality of what’s going on.

My brother, who lives in France, puts a lot of effort into his vote. He reads all the manifestos and compares information about the candidates. I just go for the one who feels closest to my ideas. Maybe I’m a clumsy voter. But I’m more engaged now. Brexit was scary, Donald Trump was super-scary, we dodged a bullet in France, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in a few years. It’s a stressful time. Where I live there is an Italian restaurant and they recently removed items on the menu that depended on Italian-sourced ingredients, and reduced the size of the servings. The waiter said, “I’m sorry, we don’t have your favourite dessert.” I asked if it was because of Brexit. He said, “You might be right.” It’s a very small example, but I think we’re going to see that at a bigger level – if energy and food get more expensive, for example. I have a privileged life, and I can pay more even if I don’t like it, but people who are already struggling will struggle much more. In France, there would be unrest; in the UK, I’m not sure.

‘The Tories have fanned the flames of racism’: Aicha Marhfour, 26, journalist, London, Labour

Aicha Marhfour
Aicha Marhfour: ‘I didn’t vote in the referendum – I wasn’t sure if I could.’ Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

I moved here last year from Melbourne for work. I feel optimistic, but not necessarily about Labour’s chance of winning; it’s more a vote of confidence. I want Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour; his policies chime with me. I don’t think he’s had a fair go from the press, though he could do more to support immigration and anti-racism.

Australia has been governed by our version of the Tories for a few years. I think what they stand for is small-minded, like cuts and austerity. I’ve been the beneficiary of Australian Labor party policies like welfare, Medicare, being able to go to university and not have to pay for it upfront. And if it wasn’t for Labor, my parents would never have been able to move to Australia from Morocco in 1990; they were economic migrants.

With Brexit, the Tories have fanned the flames of racism and anti-immigration, and that really excites a certain portion of the country that feels threatened by Muslims. There are always going to be those kinds of people, but now they’ve emerged from the fringes. I think the Tories are trying to hoover up what they can from Ukip, getting meaner and less apologetic about what they think is a political strategy.

I felt anti-immigration sentiment directed at me in Queensland. My sister lived there and it was shocking to see my parents yelled at in the street, “Get out of our country.” There’s an echo of that racism here. I don’t wear a hijab or anything that identifies me as Muslim, and I haven’t had any racist experiences here, but I’ve heard of them.

I didn’t vote in the referendum – I wasn’t sure if I could. I’d definitely have voted to remain. I’ve met people who voted for Brexit with considered opinions – they’re against EU bureaucracy, for example – but I think there’s a huge portion of people who turned out because a bus told them the money would go to the NHS. The referendum just focused my decision to vote Labour.

The narrative of young people not being politically engaged is convenient because it feeds into other stereotypes: we’re lazy, we don’t deserve to own homes. I can sympathise that when you’re struggling, you’re going to worry about that, rather than what’s going on with a lot of rich politicians. But there’s a lack of engagement on issues that really matter to younger people, like mental health and university fees..


Interviews: Erica Buist Introduction: John Harris

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