George Pascoe-Watson: PM is gripped by his own project fear - over young voters

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 27 May 2016 in Opinion

Number 10 is focused on getting more than six out of ten young voters to turn out on 23 June. But how to mobilise them?

This your three minute warning: that’s the length of time it takes to register to vote in the EU referendum.

And David Cameron believes these three minutes could be the difference between political life and death for Britain’s membership of the EU – and his own political life.

The Premier is gripped by his own project fear – that not enough under 25s will turn out on June 24 to declare their support for Remain.

They are overwhelmingly in favour of stay in the EU, having known nothing but membership all of their lives. But none of this matters if they don’t make their mark.

Private figures seen in Number 10 repeatedly suggest he needs more than six out of ten young voters to turn out on the day.

Put that into perspective. At last year’s general election, only four out of ten bothered to vote.

There are currently four million under 25s who have not registered. Perhaps even more alarmingly for the In campaign, there are fears that those who have registered may not bother.

University chancellors have issued red alerts to the PM’s team that all may not be well. Thousands of university students may wake up on polling day intending to go to the ballot box without realising they’re back at home for the summer. They are only registered at their university town, and will be denied their say.

This is providing the Premier with a significant communications headache.

Some on the Labour side point their finger at Mr Cameron and say he only has himself to blame. His change of the way people register to vote last year was a brilliant tactic to lock the Left out of number 10 for years to come. But now when he wants Left-leaning young people to rally to his side, they haven’t got a vote, say critics.

The communications challenge is immense. Politicians in their 40s and 50s and beyond are not the most attractive role models to energise this crucial crowd.

Devising campaigns like the  ‘workin, earnin, shoppin, ravin, chattin’ campaign unveiled this week runs the huge risk of being patronising. Captains of industry aren’t the messengers who have the ear for this particular audience. Mums and dads aren’t either.

How to reach this hard-to-reach group who barely read newspapers or watch Huw Edwards and Tom Bradby on BBC and ITV each evening?

So enormous efforts are being made to get the under 25s to register, then vote. Buzzfeed, Twitter, Facebook are all involved in communications efforts to target these people. Eddie Izzard is pounding the pavements trying to get people interested. But even he isn’t really a role model for the under 25s.

And time is running out. Voter registration ends on June 7. No registration? No franchise. No say.

Some in the government are confident. The polls are showing a consistent lead of around 10 points for the Remain campaign. And the bookies long ago virtually closed their book to anything other than a strong “in” vote.

Some in Number 10 are planning ahead. And pricing in a win for the PM. In those circumstances, the immediate challenge is to heal the wounds. There are some wise heads who believe an immediate and radical Cabinet reshuffle is off the cards. Better to keep the most senior Cabinet figures in place, they advise.

I expect the PM will do nothing over the summer and perhaps turn his attention to appointments in September. This will allow the focus of the media to turn to the Chilcot report‎, on which they will feast. Let MPs go away for a summer break to take the heat out of things, the PM thinks.

But look into the eyes of people around the PM now and you can see real anxiety. Nothing is in the bag. You can well understand why all government work has effectively come to a standstill as mind focus on the only show in town.

There is also caustic treatment of those who argue that once we remain, the Commission and other leaders will speed towards a closer union. One Number 10 figure says that Mr Cameron has negotiated a meaningful end to “ever closer union”.

There are now different destinations for the members of the EU and Britain. He says: “There is zero prospect of us joining the euro, of Schengen, or having fiscal cooperation for the UK.”

Their point is clear. Continued membership means we can fight for the protection of the City. And leaving the EU doesn’t insulate us from the euro’s crises – any more than we’d be protected from a dollar slide.

And on immigration, Mr Cameron negotiated a different approach to refugees, taking them directly from camps. Again, negotiated because he was “in the room”, not locked out.

But none of this will matter if Britain’s army of young men and women don’t take the three minutes to register.



George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.


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