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  © The Radical Art Review 2019 

They Don't Want Us To Vote: The UK Artists And Musicians Driving Youth Voter Turnout

by Ciarán Daly

"Obviously some people aren’t interested. But the logic for us is to go where young people are and chat to them on their terms."

Traditionally disregarded by mainstream political parties, voters under 30 were said to have made waves in the 2017 election when they turned out in unprecedented numbers.


Typical political wisdom held that the older generation - and particularly the over 65s - are almost certain to vote versus those under 35 and particularly voters aged 18-24. At first glance, this assumption remains backed by data from the 2017 election; while turnout was at a 25-year high, 54% of 18-24 year olds and 55% of 25-34 year olds voted in 2017 versus 71% of voters aged 55 and up (IPSOS MORI). Similar numbers emerged out of the previous 2015 election.


The 'youthquake' heralded with the surprise 2017 election result may not have fully come to pass. What did change in that election, however, was the emergence of activist groups combining the power of social media with the profile of popular musicians to increase the youth vote. One of the most prolific of these groups, Grime4Corbyn, saw grime artists endorse the Labour leader and for the first time begin lending outspoken partisan support to a cause long maligned by mainstream parties.


Support for the embattled Labour leader from the artist community has not evaporated completely in 2019. After all, Grime4Corbyn reformed - albeit rather late - for the 2019 election. The successes also stemmed from non-partisan groups founded with one purpose and one purpose only: to increase turnout from young voters, specifically from marginalised ethnic and BME groups in Britain.

A Rize Up street team canvassing in Leeds, 2019. (Photo: Rize Up)

Rize Up was founded in 2017 on the day the snap election was called. With a skeleton crew and a tiny budget, they managed to deploy street teams in nine UK cities, distribute half a million flyers at raves, clubs, and youth centres across the country, and gain the endorsement of musicians like Lily Allen, Professor Green, and Emeli Sande. Undeniably, they moved the needle.


The groundwork by groups like Rize Up during the 2017 election laid the foundation for an unprecedented youth voter registration drive during the current 2019 general election. In a matter of days, Rize Up brought onboard musicians like Lady Leshurr, Rudimental, and Big Narstie - and played a key role in what the Electoral Reform Society described as a 'huge increase' in voter registration compared to the last election.


An average of 114,000 people registered to vote each day since the election was called - but crucially, the last 48 hours leading up to the registration deadline saw almost double the number of young voters step up to the plate compared to 2017.


Percentage of under 34s registering to vote since 2019 election was called

3,191,193 voter registration applications were made between the 2019 election being called and the voter registration deadline. 2,125,064 of those (67%) were made by people aged 34 or under. (Stats: Electoral Reform Society Graphic: Ciaran Daly)


Rize Up didn't just get big names in music onboard. They partnered with breweries like Drygate; they set up a distribution network with Lush; they even collaborated with streetwear brands like THTC. Critically, they had teams of volunteers out in cities and towns across the UK, speaking to young people. "Obviously some people aren’t interested. But the logic for us is to go where young people are and chat to them on their terms in the places where they’re comfortable speaking," explains Mo Afridi, Rize Up's national organiser. "It's about putting their views at the centre of what we’re talking about and avoiding as much as possible preaching to them."

In practice, what this means is speaking about everyday political issues in non-political terms. "A lot of people just have never had the chat about how politics relates to their daily life," explains Mo. "You do get a lot of people saying it’s all bollocks. But it has a lot to do with the way things are being framed: venues shutting down, the price of travel, the quality of your school. We talk about these things in a way that parties don’t tend to talk to young people."


They've clearly made waves. Days before the election, Rize Up were approached by the 'Ballot of Campaign Integrity', an organisation chaired by John Woodcock, a former Labour MP who left the party amid sexual assault allegations and the government's recently-appointed adviser on extremism. This unregistered organisation accused Rize Up of a number of things that they denied; namely, that they were breaching rules on electoral data - a claim Rize Up denies, given that they don't store any personal data.


The communities that groups like Rize Up was founded to represent are ignored again and again by mainstream politicians in Britain. It remains to be seen whether the people they've helped to engage will prove decisive when the election results pour in on December 13th. What matters, Mo argues, is the fight to build a coalition of voters that politicians should begin to take seriously.


"We’re not so concerned about who wins in which seats," he says. "For us, its really about seeing whether the communities that are alienated and marginalised by politics are brought back into it in any way," he says. "If you have marginalised young people who just don’t think politics works for them in any way, they’re not going to vote and if they don’t vote then the nature of our political system is less likely to positively impact their lives."


"It’s only going to further alienate them and it’s a horrible, vicious cycle. We think the best way to smash that is to get to the point where all the parties recognise that there’s a distinct vote bloc they need to win there."


Rize Up's efforts to engage young and marginalised people continue far beyond the 2019 election. Learn more about how you can support them here.

Ciaran Daly is the Co-Editor of the Radical Art Review. Reach him at radicalartreview [at] gmail.com

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