Young people and politics aren’t necessarily compatible; at least this is the message recent statistics seem to support. Only 44% of 18-25 year olds voted in the 2010 general election. Even when politicians try and engage people in the political process it is laced with cynicism, exemplified perfectly by the decision to allow 16 year olds to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence following polls that suggested 16-18 year olds were more likely to support independence. A YouGov report from June 2013 found only three politicians polled over 1% when 940 adults were asked who they admired, the three being Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
There are dozens of youth councils around the country that exist as outlets for youth representation, and at a national level the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) acts as an elected lobbying organisation and has seen success with campaigns such as pushing for equal marriage, as well as garnering the support of all three party leaders. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, is a vocal supporter. But the Youth Parliament has no legislative influence, and has seen criticism in the media as being ‘sublimely fatuous’(The Daily Mail), as well as a 2004 report suggesting it failed to sufficiently represent the devolved nations. Now don’t get me wrong, my knowledge of the youth participation problem stems from being the Member of Youth Parliament for Kent, and much of the work undertaken by myself and my colleagues generates important and real change for young people, especially locally in vital issues such as transport. But when I go and address local schools, almost no 11-18 year olds have heard of us, let alone have an opinion on what we do. So if an organisation as large and successful as UKYP can fail to resolve the problem of youth participation, what can?
Well, for one, social media is not the saviour it is purported to be in some circles. It can certainly be effective: the 2012 Barack Obama re-election campaigned utilised the internet, especially Twitter, very effectively to spread the message and encourage youth turnout. But can Twitter really turn around turnout as despairingly low as 44%? Absolutely not. Those that are already interested in politics will use Twitter to actively commentate and debate, using a platform that publishes thoughts instantly, allowing people an audience previous generations could scarcely have imagined. But for those that aren’t already actively interested, and a 44% turnout would suggest this group is the majority, Twitter is ineffectual: there is more content on boybands and Justin Bieber than there is political commentary; it is a portal to a world of ideas, and politics is not a leading light in this vast world. The result of this is that older generations, the baby boomers, Generation X, who fail to fully understand Twitter think it can make or break elections, think it is the key to resolving youth participation. But this marginalises young people, presents them as a demographic with an easy solution, and is dangerously misinformed. The real answer lies with policy.
The aforementioned 2013 YouGov poll also revealed that 66% of 18-24 year olds were unlikely to start a business, 87% unlikely to join the armed forces, and only 38% believe politicians can have an effect on their lives. This is the generation which is rejecting organised religion like no other before it, this is the generation which is embracing progressive social policy, and this is the generation that is starting to believe in liberty. Leaders like Obama in America are so popular with young people because they talk idealistically: of freedom for all, of equality of opportunity, of an end to discrimination. But the real danger with disillusionment and the heart of the young person participation problem lies with politicians abandoning these ideals. Programmes such as PRISM, a massive abuse of power by the Americans in conjunction with GCHQ, will only serve to frustrate and anger a generation who are the first to grow up with the internet. If they see politicians espousing freedom, then spying on them with the invention they are the first generation to truly own, then there is no hope of reclaiming youth participation. The internet thus is not the salvation of young people and politics but the final nail in its coffin.
So what must politicians do to reclaim this lost generation? First off, a differentiation between parties and between ideologies is vital. The modernisation of the Conservative Party under Cameron, mimicking the modernisation Labour underwent during the tenure of Tony Blair as party leader means that many young people I speak to see very little to no difference between the parties. The Tories are indistinguishable from the Lib Dems now the two are in coalition, and Labour are indistinguishable from anything the longer they refuse to reveal any policies. So the initial step must be to engage young people by establishing strong party identities, which have fallen by the wayside. The second step is to realise that this is the generation that feels as though it has been ‘stitched up’ by its elders. Every person born in Britain today is born owing over £19,000 as their share of the national debt. That money is owed by each citizen of Britain as a result of the mistakes of others, of previous irresponsible governments and of reckless decisions made in self interest. The abiding message of the Millennial Generation therefore is that government has failed in its role of serving in the best interests of the people: a generation of teenagers are already embittered with the political system, and so less government and more liberty is the way to turn this round.
This need not be an advantage or a disadvantage for any of the political parties in Britain. The first parties to adapt and realise the changing political views of the next generation of leaders will benefit most, they will secure their long term future, and the parties that are slow to adapt and change will miss out and will have to catch up at a later date. Because the centre ground of politics is constantly evolving, and under this generation it will shift to ensure politics takes place on a plateau of liberty from excessive government. That is the way to raise participation, that is the way to turn a seemingly apathetic generation round, not by obsessing over social media.
By Elliot Burns