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Left-leaning youth vote could decide UK's EU referendum

With campaigning on the UK's EU referendum now in full swing, both the "Remain" and the "Leave" camps will have to combat voter apathy and mistrust, as Julia Macfarlane reports from Manchester.

Six months ago busloads of Conservative MPs and party activists rolled into the city of Manchester to crowds of protesters hurling insults, some even throwing eggs. Boris Johnson, the outgoing Mayor of London and face of the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, dismissed them as "assorted crusties with nose rings."

But he was back last week as the official launch of the referendum campaigns began on Friday. There is no love lost between the Labour stronghold of Greater Manchester and the Tories - and while the referendum is a cross-party issue on both sides, polling has indicated that left-wing voters do not feel as strongly about the Europe issue as their right-wing counterparts. It is these same voters who booed him six months ago whom Johnson desperately needs to convince if he is to succeed in his mission.

Those voters were not, however, present at the rally. Preaching to party faithfuls, Leave campaign activists were largely comprised of Conservative youth members, voters and students. "I'm here to see Boris," said Christopher Chen, a cheery Tory activist studying at university. Another nodded excitedly.

Leave on a roll

The Leave campaign has been riding on a wave of media interest since high profile defections from cabinet ministers and government officials were announced. All headlines were on Johnson on the day he announced he was backing Leave, as it was on Friday; his customary gags and comedic reprimand of Channel 4's political correspondent broadcasting during his speech going viral on social media, earning its own "Twitter Moment."

Where was the Remain campaign? Former Labour Chancellor softly-spoken Alistair Darling made a thoughtful pitch to mark the start of the campaign - less gags, more serious reminders of

warnings of economic fallout

from the IMF, the CBI, the Bank of England and other bodies - but all eyes were on Leave's ebullient frontman. "@StrongerIn [the official name for the Remain campaign] seems very quiet indeed," tweeted a Conservative MP, noting the omnipresence of the Leave campaign across social media.

Or so it seemed. Around the corner from where Johnson was addressing the rally in Manchester, a group of students had gathered at the Bull's Head pub, oblivious to the rally and - when asked - largely apathetic. "I don't vote. I just don't see the point. None of the politicians represent the public, they're all toffs." "I can't stand Boris Johnson," said another, "and I don't trust him with the country. Whatever is wrong with the EU is nothing more than what's wrong with this country anyway."

two men taking picture of a third copyright: Julia Macfarlane

Not one to mince words, however not everyone is enamored with straight-talking Boris

For all the Leave campaign's publicity, it faces a steep challenge.

Polling voter intentions for a referendum are more volatile than with general elections; however, YouGov, one of the UK's leading research firms, has found that Remain is currently maintaining a slim lead, and that a quarter of voters have yet to make up their minds. But a chunk of the voting population are young voters with a history of not turning up on polling day. They are largely left-leaning progressive voters - just the sort who live in urban and cosmopolitan areas like Manchester, where the results of the referendum come June will be announced. There will be no "independence from Europe," as Johnson puts it, without them behind him.

Steep challenge

The Remain campaign led by

David Cameron's government

has a real opportunity to secure a win in June if it can mobilize these young voters to turn up at the polls. The trouble is, many of them are not stirred by elections. So what does stir them?

Despite London's drizzle, the day after the launch thousands took to the streets as part of a mass march organized by The People's Assembly. The slogans on the placards were as diverse as the crowd itself: anti-Cameron, anti-Tory, anti-austerity, anti-disability cuts, anti-National Health Service cuts, anti-TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - a controversial trade deal being negotiated between the US and Europe). It was a protest against the political system itself.

crowd of protesters copyright: Julia Macfarlane

The referendum is as much about the UK's EU future as it is about domestic issues

"Am I voting? Even if you vote to remain - it's just about people making money out of each other. I don't really follow either side really," said Alistair, a young protester and NHS worker who was there because of cuts to the health service. And as for the Leave campaign's claim that EU membership money would be refunded into the NHS? "I don't really believe what any of them say to be honest. It's just talk."

Uncomfortable truce

For Remain, a key challenge is to get the young out to the polling stations. But that may prove tricky for a fractious alliance that puts David Cameron, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the rebellious Scottish National Party and other sworn enemies together in an uncomfortable truce.

For Leave, Labour swing voters are a key target. They have a good chance if they play on the left's concerns over issues such as immigration, and what Westminster describes as "identity politics." A year ago a Labour MP was forced to resign after tweeting a picture of a van parked outside a house decorated with English flags. It was seen as condescending and seemed to demonstrate criticism that the Labour party had become elitist and out-of-touch with some the party's most traditional voters - patriots. Therein lies an opportunity for the "Brexiteers" to brand themselves as a positive campaign of national pride and patriotism - a tactic rather unavailable to

pro-Europe campaigners.

Polling suggests that despite widespread mistrust of the government, particularly among the youth, staying with the EU is seen as the safer option, and so Remain is likelier to prevail come June. But as last year's shocker general election proved - we can't trust the polls either.

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