Biting the ballot: Leaders join the move to digital democracy

Young voters have an unprecedented chance to engage with top politicians

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Indy Politics

Over the years, politicians have got used to being interrogated by grizzled inquisitors like Jeremy Paxman and Jon Snow. Although this has provided some memorable sparring, it hasn’t always helped to engage younger would-be voters – and can have the opposite effect. But the web is changing all that. The potential is there to break down barriers between Westminster politicians and younger generations, but has not really been used to its potential. Until now, perhaps.

Leaders Live, the latest brainwave from the youth democracy movement Bite the Ballot, has – with the help of ITV News and i – secured agreement from the Conservative Party leader David Cameron, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, the Labour leader Ed Miliband, the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage and the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett to take part in live question-and-answer sessions with young people. Each leader will face both a studio audience and much bigger crowd online. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are in talks with Bite the Ballot for the new year.

The digital entrepreneur Jamal Edwards and singer-songwriter Eliza Doolittle, who have huge internet followings, are also supporting Leaders Live. YouTube and Twitter are powering the discussions, which will allow people watching the livestream to send in questions for the leaders, challenge them and offer immediate reaction.

The project is part of a campaign to encourage political parties to engage with young voters and create opportunities for discussion from those who may feel disengaged and disheartened by politics.

Jason Mills, the head of digital at ITV News, believes that next year’s election will be key in engaging younger voters. “Social [media] is one of the key drivers of any democratic debate, and with the 2015 election looming it’s vital that everyone gets the opportunity to engage,” he said.

“Leaders Live is a brilliant opportunity for millions of young people to do just that. Democracy is about real people, living real lives and realising that they can have a real impact on who runs the country. Now through key youth influencers, those young people can put the issues that really matter to them to the party leaders, and ask them to justify the key democratic question: Why should you get my vote?”

Michael Sani, the managing director of Bite the Ballot, said: “We will be looking for pledges and commitments to make sure that political parties are going to take the youth vote seriously.”

Jamal Edwards said: “Young people message me about this all of the time. It shows me that they are illuminated when they get a chance to speak, but until now there’s been no way for them to do that. Online streaming is a vital part of freedom of speech and that is why it is so important for politicians to get on board with it. MPs need to connect with us on all levels – not just at the polling station.”

Each politician has selected three topics for discussion (see box, above), with a fourth “wildcard” topic to be chosen by people online. The television presenter Rick Edwards, who will chair the sessions, confirmed that even he will not know the questions until the debates begin. “MPs have no way of planning their answers in advance and will hopefully have to speak openly without the jargon – young people are much less accepting of that,” he said. “We want to hear our leaders speak in a meaningful way, not dumb down what they’re saying but speak in a way in which everyone can understand.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how each member deals with the questioning – I’ve done something similar with Nick Clegg before and from my experience he was very open and charming. It will be good to see how the others match up when under pressure.”

Times have been set for four of the five party leaders, with the Prime Minister still set to confirm the date he will appear. Mr Sani said: “Naturally his diary is going to be the busiest, but I had a message from No 10 this morning.”

See more here:

Twitter: #LeadersLive


Leaders Live events:

Wednesday 26 November, 6.30pm
Natalie Bennett, Green Party
Topics: Education, Environment and Jobs/Economy

Tuesday 2 December, 6.30pm
Nigel Farage, Ukip
EU, Democracy and Immigration

Monday 8 December, 5.30pm
Ed Miliband, Labour
Jobs/Economy, Health and Democracy

Date tbc
David Cameron, Conservatives
Topics tbc

Tuesday 16 December, 7:00pm
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats
Health, Education and Jobs/Economy