LONDON (Reuters) - Some young voters who backed Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in Britain’s last election are considering turning to Labour in May’s ballot because they feel let down by the government’s record of creating jobs and opportunity.
Reuters spoke to ten first-time voters in the run up to the last election in 2010, when Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was defeated, and tracked down five of them again recently to get a snapshot of voting intentions among what is classed as Britain’s most apathetic group of voters.
Their voices count this year in particular, given that opinion polls show no party emerging as a clear winner.
After five years of spending cuts, cost of living increases and stagnant employment, many disillusioned voters in Europe’s sixth-biggest economy have shunned the traditional two parties for anti-EU and anti-establishment voices that may splinter the vote and the United Kingdom as Scottish nationalism surges and a possible EU membership referendum looms.
“I just don’t think that the government helped a lot with what they promised,” sums up Gearoid Lockwood, a Conservative voter in 2010 who is now thinking about supporting Labour.
Winning over younger electors and getting them to vote could be crucial for Labour leader Ed Miliband’s bid to be prime minister as Cameron has high approval ratings among pensioners.
Historically, data shows young people are more likely to be left-wing. But in 2010 many moved away from Labour after it had governed for 13 years and their support was far more evenly spread than in the eight previous elections from 1974 to 2005.
On May 7, they could revert to type.
Current opinion polls suggest that young voters are swinging back to Labour, although small sample sizes within individual polls mean there is a high margin of error.
That willingness to shift reflects a wider trend towards a less partisan electorate, pollsters say. And with voters now less attached to any political party than any generation before, the outcome of such a close election looks even more uncertain.
Lockwood was born in 1992, the year the Conservatives last won a British general election outright. Before 2010 he had little memory of life under anything but a Labour government.
At the last election, however, worried by the fact that more than one million 18-to-24-year olds were not in work, education or training, he decided to back a different party in the hope it could pull Britain out of its longest recession on record.
Campaigning under the slogan “We can’t go on like this”, Cameron promised voters he would cut Britain’s debt and get the economy creating jobs again after the financial crisis.
“I swung for the Conservative party ... For jobs, for schools, for employment,” said Lockwood, who lives in Leeds in northern England and comes from a family of Labour voters.
Five years on, the 23-year-old feels let down.
The British economy is growing again but the apprenticeship he had hoped for never materialised and his visits to the job centre left him empty-handed until he eventually found an unpaid work experience role cleaning tables in a coffee shop.
Now a father of two, he has worked his way up to general manager in a restaurant. But he feels his success has been in spite of, rather than thanks to, the government.
While immigration and the health service are two of the top voter issues for the broader population, jobs and housing are still among the main concerns for young people.
Unemployment among 18-to-24-year olds fell to 14.3 percent in the final quarter of 2014, compared to 17.7 percent when the Conservative-led government took over in 2010. But for most of their stint in office the rate has averaged just over 18 percent and remains well above an average of 11.3 percent in the five years before the financial crisis.
Those figures also mask a rise in companies’ use of zero hours contracts, which do not guarantee work.
Seeking to win over young voters who feel disappointed on these points, Labour has promised an apprenticeship to any school leaver with the right grades and a guaranteed job for under 25s who have been out of work for more than 12 months. It has also laid out plans for rent controls that would help young people with little prospect of buying their own home.
While Lockwood welcomes Conservative steps taken on housing, such as a scheme offering government guarantees on high loan-to-value mortgages, he says he is more likely to pick Labour or the Liberal Democrats, this year.
“Everybody is moaning about immigrants and wars and debt,” said Lockwood. “The basics need to be remembered - like giving an opportunity to a young person when they need a job.”
“WORKING FOR THE MANY”
It is typical for the party in government to find it harder to attract a more anti-establishment youth vote, says Andrew Russell, head of politics at Manchester University.
Because Britain’s current government rules in coalition, the Conservatives are not the only ones to face that problem: Their Liberal Democrat partners have lost the most young voters after breaking a promise not to raise university tuition fees.
Now the Greens have taken their place as the left-of-centre, anti-establishment party, though the Lib Dems can still hope to attract floating voters on a specific issue or candidate basis.
Fiona Hutchison, a 23-year-old from Inverness in Scotland who since 2010 has gained a degree in Geography, is one such voter who may back Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
“The way I have voted over the last 5 years has always been very specific, policy-based or candidate-based rather than any kind of loyalty to a party,” she said.
Diane Johnson, 26, a first year student at Huddersfield University in northern England who voted Labour in 2010, worries that voting Lib Dem or Greens would be a wasted vote.
“Lib Dems now or the Green party would just be taking the votes away from Labour and I think we really just need that strong government to sort it out,” she said.
In addition to adopting youth-friendly policies, Miliband has also sought to portray the Conservatives as the party of the rich in a bid to differentiate a more left-wing Labour for youngsters who might have seen the main parties as too similar.
His approach has chimed with Johnson, who spent much of the last five years struggling to find work and feels many people are worse off under the Conservative-led government.
“I like the idea of (Labour) ... working for the many and not for the few because it just feels like at the minute it is all very much one-sided,” she said.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Andrew Osborn and Sophie Walker