Man from the Ministry works to get the youth vote out

It isn't only the political parties who are wooing the electorate's under-24s, writes Milly Jenkins
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The Independent Online
The drive to get young people to register to vote seems to be paying off. Last week the National Union of Students and Rock the Vote, which have been campaigning to get more people on to the electoral roll, said more than 400,000 new young voters have signed up. They hope thousands more will have registered by the time the election is called.

But registering people is one thing, getting them to vote is another. The younger generation is now notorious for its political apathy. At the last election 43 per cent of under-25s failed to vote.

The Ministry of Sound, the south London club, is running a "Use Your Vote" campaign, designed to provoke clubbers into action. Slickly produced cinema ads show real-life, unscripted bigots ranting about single mothers crippling the welfare state, immigrants wasting NHS resources, and "unnatural" homosexuals. Thousands of postcards are also being distributed. One shows a men's lavatory with a graffito reading "Piss on Niggers". The slogan on each ad is: "Use Your Vote. You Know He Will."

The Ministry of Sound says its campaign is not party political. But it would be hard to interpret these ads as pro-Conservative, particularly the ones highlighting injustices to single mothers and illegal immigrants.

Mark Rodol, the club's managing director, says it has no secret agenda. "We did surveys of people coming into the club and focused on the issues young people say they care most about - homelessness, sexism, cruelty to animals and gay rights.

Despite the Ministry's protestations that its campaign is not intended to boost Labour, there have been non-stop accusations of bias. The ads were made by the same agency that works for the Labour Party. Eyebrows were also raised last year when James Palumbo, the club's owner, gave Peter Mandelson MP the use of a chauffeur-driven car. Mr Rodol says that the Labour spin-doctor and Mr Palumbo are friends and this was simply a "personal gesture". Mr Palumbo is the estranged son of Tory peer Lord Palumbo, causing further speculation that the campaign is designed to annoy his father.

Mr Palumbo has said that it makes "good business" sense to win the campaign. The Ministry of Sound sells millions of pounds-worth of records and clothes every year. Its logo appears on the ads, which are sponsored by individuals and organisations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare. But Mr Rodol says it has more to lose than gain by running the campaign.

He said: "We are already established as the leaders of UK clubland. This is a risk for us. We consider ourselves to be our own party. We're doing this because we feel responsible. Clubbing is a huge phenomenon, but there is no voice for the thousands of voting people who go out every weekend. We want to let them know what an incredible force they can be."

But just how significant a force could the youth vote be in the election? The 18-24-year-olds represent 16 per cent of the total electorate. That is 5.2 million people. Previous generations at this age have had more electoral muscle power, but young people could still swing the vote in some marginal constituencies and the Ministry of Sound is planning to blitz cinemas with ads in these areas in the run-up to the election.

Marginal constituencies with large student populations, such as Brighton Pavilion, Cardiff North and Birmingham Edgbaston, may well see a swing to Labour. The sitting Conservative MPs in some of these seats have been frank about their hopes for an April election, when the students are away. Less gloomy Tory MPs have been murmuring that it is naive to assume that young people will vote Labour.

Friday's Mori poll suggests otherwise, with 64 per cent of 18-24-year- olds saying that - if they vote - they will vote Labour; 23per cent would vote Conservative and 8 per cent Lib Dem.

George Monbiot, the environmental writer, welcomed the news that more young people were registering to vote, adding: "But just as these newly enfranchised people become a political force, the parties are emerging with positions possibly less youth oriented than ever before. Both major parties are concentrating all their energy on just two issues - taxation and law and order.

"The Labour Party have progressively neglected the issues that are most important to young people. They are very poor on civil rights and weak on the environment and issues such as the sale of weapons to ferocious regimes abroad. Young people would be ill-advised to vote Labour."

Instead, he would like to see young people voting for smaller parties, which still uphold some of their ideals, so that Labour will be begging for their votes in 2002.

Geoff Mulgan, of the think-tank Demos, says he is "baffled" that anyone could say the political parties are ignoring the young: "I have been astonished by how much the parties have shifted on this. Labour's top priority is to provide 250,000 jobs for young people. The Liberal Democrats have announced that a huge chunk of their policies will be directed at young people. The Tories haven't got their act together, but they are talking about young people in a way that just wasn't happening a few years ago."

Politicians were indeed busy trying to woo the youth vote last week. Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and David Mellor held a Question Time-style debate at Westminster for first-time voters. Tony Blair called on the audience to use their vote no matter whom they voted for, confident that, if young people do vote, it will be for him.

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