voting with their feet

Where would you rather be - up a tree or at a party conference? Is it any wonder that an entire generation has opted out of party politics?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
`ilive in Bournemouth and it's so true-blue that voting any other way is just pissing in the wind - there's no point in bothering to try and get anyone else in. Anyway, as far as I know, I'm not on the list or whatever it is you need to be on to vote." Charlie, 22, a recent geography graduate, works on and off as casual labour on a building site.

Giving up his electoral powers doesn't worry him. "I don't want to be on any lists. I don't want anyone keeping an eye on me, watching where I live, what benefits I'm claiming. I don't care about not voting. And local elections are just a complete waste of time. Bournemouth is old Tory soldiers and fat blue-rinsed ladies running things."

In fact, he's wrong: the Liberal Democrats have edged ahead on Bournemouth council. "Well, I don't like any of them. It doesn't make any difference who's in or who's out."

Charlie is not alone. It seems that, quite apart from persuading young voters to give their allegiance to any particular party, the main task is to drag them to the ballot box in the first place. People aged between 18 and 25 make up 16 per cent of the electorate; at the last election less than half of them bothered to vote.

Concern over this voluntary disenfranchisement has led to an odd coupling. The venerable British Youth Council, worthy custodian of youth issues for the past half century, has joined forces with Activ 88, youth wing of radical political reform group Charter 88. On October 6 they will be launching a new initiative, M-Power (empower, geddit?), an apolitical campaign to encourage the young to lose their voting virginity. Its supporters are also strange bedfellows, as diverse as the Home Office and the anti- Criminal Justice Bill campaigners.

"Young people tend to be involved in single issues - green issues, environment, human rights - rather than politics," says Anne Callaghan of the BYC. "We want to engender a sense that their voice can be heard within our democratic society."

Many new voters never bother to register. "The system is very cumbersome," explains Ms Callaghan. "Young people tend to be very mobile, and you have to register and give an address far in advance. We will be launching nationwide advertising, we have worked out a postcard-format form to make registration more accessible, we hope to extend the amount of time people have to register. And we will be working with music promoters in venues where young people come together."

Pop culture and politics are a queasy mix. Is this going to be a "hey, kids, voting is cool" attempt to sell complicated grown-up politics to The Young People? No, says Sean Sweeney, 29, of Activ 88. "The integrity of where it's coming from makes it different. It's a vehicle for political activity. It's not that young people are apathetic. But many of them have no political education. We want to help them bring issues that are important for them into the political arena."

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Louise, 20, a member of campaigning pressure groups including Greenpeace and Amnesty, protested on Twyford Down. "Everyone says the only way to change things is from within a political framework. I don't agree. The only way to get anything done without going through 20 committees is to get out there yourself."

Sean Sweeney is not unsympathetic. "The trickiest group to talk to will be the activists - they've already seen that they can influence the government and the media. It'll be tough to persuade them registration is important. They are more interested in non-violent direct action. I say fair enough to that. But we want to bring these issues onto the political agenda. One problem is that lively politics and progressive thinking seem to go on outside the Labour and Conservative parties, and the Liberal Democrats can afford to court radical ideas and drop them when it comes to the election."

So, even if Disillusioned Youth can be coaxed to the polls, the big three are a bunch of bores. Or are they? There are 7,500 Young Conservatives, 10,000 Conservative Students. The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students are 2,300 of a 100,000 strong party. Young Labour's ranks have rocketed from 14,000 to nearly 23,000 in the last 18 months.

While these figures are nowhere near the heights of the Forties and Fifties, adult membership has also fallen significantly since then. And the numbers involved look quite respectable beside the memberships of some supposedly youth-heavy campaigning groups. Amnesty has 12,500 student members; the Vegetarian Society has 16,000 members, and Animal Aid has 8,000 (they do not classify members according to age, so in fact these figures include all members over the age of 18). Perhaps people just don't like joining things any more.

But all the parties want to grab an infusion of fresh young blood. So, what do they offer? Across the board, loads of political discussion, campaigning, and socialising. Labour, says Young Labour chair Lizzi Watson, is the only party with a commitment to the environment. Conservative party policy, explains a spokesman, "reflects the aspirations of young people - owning their own homes, getting a good job." Chris Egerton of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students says: "Young people are still idealistic about key issues so we try to campaign regularly on these issues - animal rights, live animal export, and so on." The Lib Dems are lobbying for a common voting age of 16, so even more young people can refuse to use their political clout.

But capturing young voters is not so easy. They seem to be alarmingly flexible in their allegiances. "I voted Conservative in our local elections, because my friend was running and I know he's a genuine bloke and would make a good politician," says Atholl, 20, a civil servant. "But I'm on the fence really. I always thought the Conservatives were strong and moral, but with all the sleaze scandals, my mind's been changed. All I've seen is the price of fags and beer going up. Tony Blair doesn't seem genuine. He's always smiling, but he contradicts himself - when he sends his son to a private school, it's hypocritical. I'm interested in what concerns me directly - keeping my job, taxes. And I'm not the type who waves a placard, but I spend a lot of time in the country and I haven't heard any policies from anyone to preserve it or support the National Trust."

"I was just in time for the last general election," says Keri, 21, a graduate in Heritage Conservation and another floater. "I was a student then and my poll card was all over the place - in the end I voted at home in Cornwall and I picked the Lib Dem because he was best for the area. I chose the person, not the national policies. All the parties are good at saying what's wrong with the others, but they don't say what they'd do themselves."

"I'll be voting Labour next time, I think, they're the only ones with a chance of getting the Conservatives out," says Claire, 25, a French graduate. "Young people aren't as wishy-washy as you imagine. We're not just interested in bunnies in cages - I'm concerned about trade, the economy, the mines closing down, and so are my friends."

Britain is not the only country where the young are voting with their feet. Germany, France, Australia and America have all reported similar trends. A new report by the independent think-tank Demos points out that governments are being elected with ever smaller shares of electoral support. Demos says that not only has "an entire generation opted out of party politics", but that "young people are leading a deepening public detachment from politics." No change on the horizon: the report underlines "the extent to which many young people now take pride in being out of the system." The name coined for this is "disconnection"; it seems unlikely the disconnected will be wooed with postcard-style registration cards and token nods towards rabbits' rights come election time.

"If not voting causes so much fuss, perhaps we should go on a vote strike, it would probably do far more to bring us into the limelight," suggests Niamh, 18, a history student. "But I always vote - I can't help thinking of poor Emily Davison, the suffragette who was killed. People have died for our right to vote."

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