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‘The whole country is falling apart’: Britain’s young voters are frustrated

With a British trade union flag flying behind him on a windy June morning, Liam Kehoe was on strike with colleagues outside the Royal Liverpool University Hospital. They demanded better pay for doormen, cleaners and catering staff. Their wages could not keep up with the increase in the cost of living and many said they were living paycheck to paycheck.

Mr Kehoe, 26, serves food at the hospital. He plans to vote for the centre-left Labour Party on Thursday, the day of the British general election, because of the economic situation and the crumbling state of the National Health Service, he said.

Thinking of the lives his parents built on salaries earned as nurses and lorry drivers, Mr Kehoe said young people were left with much worse prospects after 14 years of a Conservative-led government. “If you go back 30 years, houses were a bit more affordable, life was a bit easier,” he said. “Nowadays it’s like you can’t afford anything.”

Opinion polls indicate more than half voters under 35 plan to vote Labour on Thursday, compared with 27 percent of voters over 65. While the divide between the young and old in politics is not new, the extent of the split in Britain in recent years has been exceptional, with a sharp decline in support for the ruling Conservative Party in all age groups except the oldest, according to recent polls.

Before 2019, this was the most important factor in whether people voted Conservative or Labour was income. More recently, “age has replaced class as the determining factor in how people vote,” says Molly Broome, an economist at the Resolution Foundation, a British research institute.

The northern English city of Liverpool has long been a Labor stronghold with a proud working-class tradition. Many young people said their loyalty to the centre-left party has been strengthened by the feeling that their needs have been ignored by the Conservatives.

Mr. Kehoe and his girlfriend are trying to buy a house. “The housing market is on its knees,” he said. “The whole country is falling apart because this government is doing it for them and not for us. They don’t care about us, the little guys at the bottom.”

Others expressed broader dissatisfaction with a political system that they felt failed to take their needs into account. Some young people said they would not vote at all, while others would vote for third-party candidates who had little chance of winning more than a few seats but whose ethos was more in line with their own.

Much of the political messaging from Britain’s two largest parties is geared toward the priorities of older generations, experts said, since they make up a large share of the electorate, partly because of population shifts. They are also more likely to vote: About 96 percent of people over 65 are registered to vote, compared with 60 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds and 67 percent of 20- to 44-year-olds. according to a 2023 Report of the Election Commission.

Politicians have secured a number of policies that support older people, even as younger generations face worsening living standards. The pension ‘triple lock’, for example, introduced by the Conservative government in 2011, ensures that the state’s pension income — similar to Social Security in the United States — rises each year at the highest rate of earnings growth, inflation or 2 .5 percent.

While age remains the main dividing factor in support for the two main political parties, there are also divisions within the younger generation, Ms Broome said. Labor has shown a positive turn in the polls in all generations, except among millennials who have not graduated from university and among those who do not own a home.

“It’s not that they’re more likely to vote Conservative; it’s that they’re less likely to vote,” Ms Broome said.

Owen Burrows, 21, a hospital porter in Liverpool, has no intention of voting, he said, despite it being his first general election to stand for election.

“I just can’t say there’s anyone I really agree with, so I really wouldn’t be inclined to vote,” he said. He recalls being “stunned” in 2016 when the country voted to withdraw from the European Union.

“Given the state the country is in now, and given the whole Brexit situation, it feels like it’s gone completely wrong,” he said.

Brexit is a major threat to many. In Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle, a former warehouse district with a thriving creative scene, young men skateboarded in the evening light, the rhythmic thump of their skateboard wheels bouncing off brightly colored walls.

One of the skateboarders, Joe McKenna, 26, was the first in his family to go to university. In the Brexit referendum, his first vote, he chose to remain, while his parents both voted to leave.

“I think that was the first time I noticed a gap between what my parents think about and what I think about,” he said. “Now we don’t really talk about it because it happened and I think they know it’s not a good situation. But I don’t blame them.”

With the consequences of Brexit in mind, he plans to vote Labor in the upcoming elections.

“I see them as the lesser of two evils,” he said. “Many working class people voted for the Conservative Party at the last election because it convinced them that change would happen. And of course with Brexit that has swung a lot of opinion in the direction of the Conservative Party.”

Housing is another source of dissatisfaction. Around 70 percent of young Brits say they believe the dream of home ownership is over for many in their generation, This is evident from a study by the Center for Policy Studiesa British research group. And the data supports that view: Thirty-nine percent of 25 to 34 year olds owned a home in 2022-2023, a decrease from a peak of 59 percent in 2000.

Even some young Conservatives, such as Olivia Lever, 24, said they felt forgotten in the current campaign. Ms Lever, a founder of the University of Liverpool Young Conservatives and director of Blue Beyonda grassroots group for young Tories, said there had been no attempt to meet the needs of young people.

“In the Conservatives there has been a divide between the younger members of the party and the older members of the party for some time,” she said. “With this election — where is the growth? Where is the housing construction? Where are the jobs? How do we inspire and empower people?”

Ms Lever said many young people are “completely disenfranchised from politics because it is very elderly-oriented”, pointing to a recent survey her group conducted among young Tories, in which they were asked to describe the current campaign. Many responded: “Boomer-ist.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, young people who identify with the progressive left also described feeling dispossessed. A small protest camp against the conflict in Gaza emerged at the University of Liverpool last month, inspired by similar demonstrations in the United States.

Students and recent graduates expressed frustration that Labour had not immediately called for a ceasefire or condemned Israel’s actions. Aamor Crofts, 21, who is studying conservation and has been camping here since May, plans to cast her vote for a Green or independent candidate.

“I don’t see any major party that really represents me,” she said. Young people, she said, were being left behind with the fallout from Brexit, economic problems and skyrocketing house prices. “This is not the country we want to inherit,” she said.

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