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Most young people won't bother to vote: a dangerous precedent, says first-timer Ben Westwood

Most of the young people eligible to vote in the general election will probably not bother. Of first-time voters, 50 per cent (more than 2.5 million of them) failed to vote in the 1992 election, and a recent Mori/NOP poll indicates that this time only around 40 per cent of 18-24- year-olds are intending to do so.

The poll tax and council tax have obviously played a part in the voting decline, as non-payers have never joined the voting register. However, the main cause of these strikingly low figures is widespread political disaffection among Britain's young people. On and off campus, politicians are viewed as dishonest and complacent, and because many young people feel they do not have a voice, they give up trying to get people to listen.

Conservative Party Central Office has a different view, arguing that Britain's youth have the same aspirations as their parents: good jobs, low taxes and their own homes. As far as Central Office is concerned, political apathy in young people is not a major problem. Yet a recent British Youth Council survey found that only 23 per cent of young people feel they belong to a community, compared to 42 per cent of adults. Could it be that figures like these, combined with the low level of young voter turn-out, have convinced some political campaigners that the young vote is just not worth chasing?

The Labour party appears to be more willing to single out issues that are likely to attract young people. Tony Blair has made a point of campaigning to young people. Some relevant policy pledges also appear to be in place: a pledge to bring 250,000 young people off benefits and into work, training for all 16-to-17-year-olds, relaxation of the rules on benefits for students, and the establishment of an environmental "task force".

And Labour's message has proved to be reasonably persuasive with young people. Membership of Young Labour has doubled in the last 18 months, to 28,000. By contrast, the Young Conservatives, whose numbers massed at around 100,000 in the Fifties, have now dwindled to 5,000.

Furthermore, Labour appears to be making a greater effort to appeal to young people than the Conservatives do. Blur's Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher from Oasis have pledged their support for Labour, Gallagher going so far as to say (at the Brit awards last year): "There's only seven people doing good for this country: the five members of Oasis, Alan McGee and Tony Blair."

The Labour leader presented one of the Brit Awards and, though he looked somewhat out of place in a room full of pop stars, Labour's public relations team must have been well satisfied. Probably less satisfying to them were Gallagher's recent comments on drug use. The ensuing debate has provided an example of an issue upon which many young people's views are at the opposite end of the spectrum from those of most MPs.

Given that party decisions about election strategy are rarely decided by 18-25s, being wooed by a political party is likely to remain almost as embarrassing as taking your father to a night-club. The Liberal Democrats are a case in point; they have a good history of awareness of "youth issues", especially on education. Yet their "youth" campaign literature makes as many pratfalls as techno-Dad, with the latest offering presenting young Liberal Democrats in classic poses from the Trainspotting movie poster. They may be the only party courageous enough even to utter the word "decriminalisation", but the Lib Dems' (presumably unintentional) message to culturally-aware young people is: "vote Lib Dem - the party of the heroin subculture". Either the Lib Dems have quietly embarked on a radical new set of policies, or they should consider suing themselves for defamation.

Rock stars and MPs are likely to remain uneasy allies, and their alliance will almost certainly have no visible effect on the numbers of young people voting. This has been shown by the misfortune that has affected the "Rock the Vote" campaign, which was launched in 1995 by British musicians such as Radiohead and Gene and comedians such as Jo Brand and Eddie Izzard. However, as well as being the target of accusations of anti-Conservative bias, the campaign is also weighed down by debts to advertising agencies. It is even losing the support of people who formerly backed it, most notably Damon Albarn.

Whether or not "Rock the Vote" succeeds in its aim, many young people consider voting to be futile because they perceive few differences between the two main parties. An obvious example of this is the debate over higher education funding. Labour have made clear that they are not seeking to reverse the Government's phasing out of grants for higher education. This year even the NUS, under the leadership of Labour Students, passed a motion to support a loans scheme to replace grants. Labour argue, with some justification, that it would cost the government pounds 2.5bn to return to the 1979 level of grants, and that this is not economically viable. But try explaining that to thousands of young people who simply won't be able to afford to go to university as result of the policy shift.

Sociologists frequently point out that huge numbers of young people have known only a Conservative government, and this is certainly a key factor in their apathy. To be governed by a party that aims to appeal to those who, in the Prime Minister's own words at the Party Conference in Bournemouth, "work hard and save for old age", cannot help but increase the sense of alienation among Britain's young people. Most have never witnessed the effect of alternatives to Conservatism, so they don't contemplate voting to keep them in government. However, the choice is clear: do they want more of the same, or a change?

Young people may not believe that a non-Conservative government would bring worthwhile change, but, with millions of votes at issue, their disaffection may deny the country an opportunity to find outn

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