It is often said that young people are disinterested or disengaged with politics in the UK. This is only partly true. The turnout of young people (18-24 year olds) has fallen significantly over recent decades to well under fifty percent in UK general elections. And the situation is likely to be made even worse with the poorly thought out introduction of individual voter registration by the Coalition government. What is equally worrying is the gap between youth turnout and overall turnout (for all ages) in the UK, which is the largest in Western Europe.
This suggests that there is a generational rupture in political participation. One explanation is the marginalisation of young people from politics and by public policy. Politicians rarely address issues of concern to younger citizens, who have – furthermore – been forced to bear the brunt of global financial crisis in austerity Britain: from a hostile labour market for new entrants, to the tripling of university tuition fees, to the closing of local youth centres. As the argument goes, young people have little faith in politicians and political parties.
However, my own research and the research of others have shown that young people are interested in ‘politics’ (more broadly defined). Although younger citizens have turned away from electoral politics – and not without good reason, as Russell Brand recently argued in his interview with Jeremy Paxman – they have become increasingly engaged in issues that have relevance to their everyday lives.
Indeed, young people are diversifying political engagement through membership of NGOs like Amnesty or Greenpeace, active involvement in rallies or protests (e.g. over tuition fees and the end of EMA), or online consumer action against corporate greed (e.g. the Occupy Movement).
For those who wish to rejuvenate youth participation in British democracy, two central issues are socialisation and contact. With the dramatic decline in membership of traditional political organisations like political parties and trade unions, citizens are increasingly politically socialised through their own personal networks of family and friends. This helps to explain the relative success of the 2008 Obama campaign, which encouraged and empowered younger citizens to campaign for the Democratic Party to mobilise their social networks. The excellent Samuel L Jackson Obama advert illustrates this approach.
The second issue is contact. Given the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, citizens who do not live in a marginal constituency are unlikely to ever see the MPs or local councillors that represent them. This enables politicians to be vilified and dehumanised by a cynical media (note Paxman’s own position on voting!). However, young people are rightly suspicious of efforts to get them engaged in the run-up to general elections. Real contact means ongoing engagement.
Political parties on the centre-left have a duty to be ‘progressive’. In my opinion ‘progressive’ not only means trying to provide equality of opportunity for different social groups, but also focussing on the needs of future generations and intergenerational justice. In practice, this requires a greater focus on youth issues at both a national and a local level, including unpaid internships, university tuition fees, transport costs and youth crime. It also requires the integration of young people into electoral politics.
At a general level, the centre-left should become a more forceful advocate of citizenship education to accompany votes for 16 and 17 year-olds. At a party political level, this requires the Labour party to empower youth activists.
Many elected representatives are very good at engaging with schools and colleges in their local areas, but there are many contact blackspots across the country. Political parties need to commit all their representatives to deeper engagement in their constituencies through the whole of the electoral cycle. Young people think politics has forgotten them. Let’s prove them wrong.
Dr James Sloam is a senior lecturer in politics at Royal Holloway, University of London