The tuition fee issue last winter saw the biggest breakdown in relations between the government and young people for some time. Tens of thousands of students took to the streets to protest at the fact they had been mislead by a political figure, something unsurprising in retrospect, but as Nick Clegg had represented himself as the politician of students and young people, it would be hard to accuse them of naivety in this case.
This doesn’t absolve young people of responsibility for the shocking figure that 60% of them do not vote in elections however. If you don’t engage with the system on some level, it is hard to then complain when your opinion isn’t taken seriously by candidates who are trying to appeal to just enough voters to secure their election at the end of the day.
But what is the bar to youth engagement in politics? Michael Sani, a teacher in Dartford believes it is the levels of political education in schools; a view prompted when he asked his class of 24 who they planned to vote for in the 2010 general elections and all of them replied that they would not be voting. This classroom discussion spawned the ‘Bite the Ballot‘ campaign, a movement modelled on the ‘Rock the Vote‘ campaign in America which rallied the highest turnout of under 30s in a generation at the last Presidential elections.
“Why do we have to come all the way to parliament to learn about engaging in politics?”
Nearly a year after the campaign was set up, Bite the Ballot held its third debate in the Houses of Parliament last Tuesday. Around one hundred young voters assembled in one of the palace’s committee rooms along with politicians such as Lord Roberts, Simon Hughes MP and Baroness Morris to debate on Higher Education funding and political education in schools. The importance of such an event is probably best highlighted by the fact one voter simply asked “Why do we have to come all the way to parliament to learn about engaging in politics?” which was received with rapturous applause from the entire room.
Not all parents sit their children in front of the news everyday, get them involved in local politics or take them to watch a debate in Parliament. Unfortunately, neither do all schools either. The politics is often reserved for adults to think about, coming across as boring just like most other ‘grown-up’ interests. However, as pointed out at Tuesday’s debate, everyone is political. If you use public services, or have an opinion on foreign policy or the economy, you are political and it is in your interest to engage with politics.
…young people must claim their stake in our political debate…
Another reason given for the 60% of young people who do not vote, this time by Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes MP, is that even if there is adequate provision of political education in schools, during the intervening period where young people leave school at 16 and are then eligible to vote at 18, any work done to engage with youths can be lost. The alternative put forward by some is the need for ‘Votes at 16‘. A motion supported by the Labour Party conference in 2008 and is a policy of the Scottish National Party government in Scotland.
There is no question that young people must claim their stake in our political debate if candidates are to take them seriously as an electorate. Currently, we are brilliant at engaging aspirational young people in programs such as the UK Youth Parliament, but not everyone is destined to be, nor should be a future political leader, simply political. This is the aim of campaigns like Bite the Ballot and Votes at 16 – to ‘Make Politics simple, personal and fun’.
Images courtesy of Bite the Ballot