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Hannah Armstrong

It may be hard to remember a time when ‘Brexit’ was not the front page of every newspaper, but soon the months of campaigning shall be but a distant memory.

However, as we enter the final stages of this debate the outcome is far less certain than either side of the argument would have wished for. Recent polls indicate that the country is split down the middle by the issue, with roughly equal numbers wanting out as wanting in.

Whilst there is hope for the cross-party ‘Stronger In’ campaign with a slim majority of the population believing that Britain will stay in and only 17 per cent thinking that we will leave, the greatest challenge facing the remain campaign is the possibility of a low voter turnout amongst their supporters.

This is because the voter demographic most likely to opt to remain in Europe are those under the age of 25, with more than 70 per cent of the UK’s university students supporting the decision to stay. However, historically the UK’s youth have a poor record of turning out to vote.

To combat this the government has been sending their ‘Stronger In’ campaign bus around the country, drafting in MP’s and ministers to visit university campuses and persuade students not only that we are better off in, but also that it is vital for them to turn out and vote on 23 June.

Unfortunately, despite it being a cross-party campaign, many students have not taken kindly to visits from high-profile Conservatives, especially in light of the Panama Papers’ revelations regarding David Cameron’s personal tax affairs. This led to an unfortunate incident at the University of Exeter in which the prime minister’s EU referendum Q&A was derailed by students who were far more keen to talk about his taxes.

In response, the government issued an implicit media blackout of these events. When the University of East Anglia was visited on 14 April by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Elizabeth Truss (MP) and Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Taverne, no one apart from a handful of staff and students were allowed to know. The ‘Stronger In’ campaign bus heralded their arrival but rather than visiting the campus to persuade undecided or ‘out’-leaning students to vote ‘in’, they instead met for 15 minutes with a collection of students wearing ‘Stronger In’ t-shirts in a secluded seminar room.

During the course of this brief meeting Ms Truss and Lord Taverne asked the students how they thought the government should reach out to student voters. Whilst it went unsaid, the obvious answer seemed to be they should actually speak to the students they were appealing to, not just those who were already wearing t-shirts with the in campaign slogan on.

It is understandable that after the Exeter incident the government is cautious about open forums with students, but with such a crucial decision to be made they cannot afford to be afraid of their own electorate.

Time and time again politicians ask, ‘How do we engage young voters?’. The answer is blindingly simple: they need to actually talk to them.

 

Hannah Armstrong is a second year English Literature student at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

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