A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
In this week’s blog, Jamie Mercer from Youth Focus: North East looks at the role young people have to play in shaping the political landscape.
When it comes to politics, young people are an untapped gold mine. In fact, a think tank recently stated that the party that manages to tap into this demographic may just “win the keys to Downing Street”. So why are young people, who hold such political sway, so often ignored and undervalued?
The mainstream perception is that young people just plum don’t care about politics; however, the Scottish Referendum in September 2014 evidenced that, given the right literature and materials, young people aged 16-17 were more than able to make their own minds up and contribute to a very serious issue that affected the entire country. In fact, approximately 100,000 young people under-18, making up 80% of the eligible demographic, registered to vote. But young people aren’t interested in politics, right?
The Youth Select Committee, in their Lowering the Voting Age to 16 report, state that 16-17 year olds are more likely to turn out than 18-24 year olds to vote because their lives are more stable due to less upheaval and a solid routine in their school life. Furthermore, the report goes on to suggest that lowering the voting age to 16 would create a cultural zeitgeist in getting politics more ingrained in popular culture and could encourage a generation to hit the ballot boxes. This way of thinking is mirrored by the actions of 16 and 17 year-olds in Scotland where almost a quarter of young people have joined a political party while two thirds have been inspired to find out more about politics on the back of the referendum. But then, young people don’t care about politics, right?
Indeed, almost two weeks ago, the leaders of the political parties were paraded awkwardly in front of an audience of young people in the Sky News studios in London to field questions ranging from immigration to unemployment and university fees. Interestingly, Labour’s Ed Miliband, a firm supporter of the vote at 16 agenda, suggested his party were looking at creating a ‘youth manifesto’ that, at face value, sounds like a commendable idea, but one wonders if young people will be consulted during its creation and how much involvement they will have in the finished product and will it meet the needs identified by the young people rather than ticking a box?
In January, Youth Focus: North East held a youth discussion group looking at politics and what it meant to young people in the region. The group we spoke to bemoaned the lack of information that was available to them and admitted to being put off from learning about important issues that affected them by the language used by politicians. The lack of political education during earlier years at school was also mentioned with the group agreeing that more needed to be done to make politics more accessible for young people. During this session we asked the group what they thought ‘politics’ was and the popular answer was very much in line with the definition of Party Politics including Westminster, the Prime Minister, a ruling group, and so on. What the young people didn’t mention anyway near as much, was the more day to day issues that they are more likely to come across such as the price and quality of public transport, the cleanliness of the streets they live on, the education they receive, equality, healthcare or the rights they have as workers. Do people on the whole think of politics in the big-P sense rather than the little-p and get put off of one by the other? The result from that meeting was that young people were really passionate about having a say, and had a range of opinions covering several issues, but were not sure which party best suited their interests or maybe had difficulty prioritising their own personal beliefs so they could vote on a single issue they were really passionate about.
So how can politicians tap into this vast resource of untapped young people that everyone is saying could sway the result of the election? Online voting? Jargon-free manifestos? Using social media more effectively? Developing the personal, social, and political awareness of young people is one of the cornerstones of our profession and one could argue that almost every engagement with young people is political in some manner. This coming general election has been dubbed the most important one in a generation. Let’s give politics back to young people, and the first step to that is by speaking to them. But then young people aren’t interested in politics. Right?