General Election 2015: Can SBTV founder Jamal Edwards persuade young people to vote?

Jamal Edwards has had audiences with Cameron and Miliband and is seen as a poster boy for young businessmen. The YouTube mogul is now the face of a campaign encouraging young people to vote. But there's just one problem... as Oscar Quine finds out
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Indy Politics

Jamal Edwards has a phone in each hand. Hunched forward in a dark TV studio, his face is lit blue by the pair of screens. This, you might think, would be the natural setting for a young media mogul. However, he's here not to record a music video, but to quiz Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

Edwards, aged 24, is one of 16 or so young people selected for their online clout to be panellists on the Leaders Live series. The others – mainly video bloggers – mill around excitedly. Despite their millions of followers, I recognise nobody. Yet, sat in silence, cap down, there is a sense that everyone knows Jamal.

"They're cool," he says diplomatically when I ask later what he makes of his fellow internet celebrities. But there's no getting away from the fact that next to him, they are neophytes. "I've been on YouTube for eight years," as he puts it. "I'm one of the original don don dadas."

Edwards' ascent began at 15, when he shot a video of foxes on his estate. He uploaded it to a new video-sharing website called YouTube. It quickly gained 1,000 views, and Edwards was encouraged to set up an urban youth channel called SBTV. Richard Branson has described him as the "walking definition of the word entrepreneur" while The Sunday Times Rich List puts his worth at £8m.

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Edwards in his home neighbourhood of Acton (Benjamin McMahon)

Now, ahead of the General Election, he is turning his attention to the crisis in the youth turnout. In 2010, only 44 per cent of 18-24-year-olds cast their vote, compared to 65 per cent in total. The Leaders Live talks – streamed via YouTube, naturally – are one of his first duties working with organiser Bite the Ballot.

His separation in the TV studio comes across as shy rather than aloof, but it's he who is chosen to ask the first question – and to whom presenter Rick Edwards returns most frequently over the hour.

In the lead-up to Christmas, Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all dutifully submit to the grilling-cum-light toasting of the panel. David Cameron is set to appear last, but he is a no-show, causing a ripple of headlines to presage the tsunami caused by his ducking and weaving on the issue of national TV debates.

Never before has an election battleground been drawn on such generational lines. But is it really a politician's duty to pre-chew democracy for younger voters? And should those who do not vote have any sense of entitlement come a new administration? In answering these questions, you could do worse than look to Edwards.

"Noooooooo!" Jamal is bent forward, palms pressed on the counter, his mouth six inches from my dictaphone. We are sat in the window seat of a café on > Acton High Street. He has just said that he doubts his mum's political knowledge. "Excuse me. Not that. She'd kill me!"

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Edwards is one of 16 or so young people selected for their online clout to be panellists on the Leaders Live series (Benjamin McMahon)

This is unusually concise for Edwards. Generally he speaks at a million miles an hour, words crashing and tumbling from his mouth. He doesn't finish sentences. And often doesn't start them either, launching into ideas in media res. Pronouns go missing. But to judge Edwards by the way he speaks, rather than what he says, is of course to miss the point.

"They always thought I had attention disorder because I was messing about," he says of his school days. His mum, Brenda Edwards – who came fourth in the second series of X Factor, is now an actor and has recorded an album – tells it a slightly different way: Edwards was a shy boy and it was SBTV that brought him out of his shell.

Jamal grew up with his mum and younger sister Tanisha, first in Luton and then in Acton. "It was rough," he says. "South Acton was one of the baddest estates in west London." But he says he'd rather not dwell on that side of things. He achieved six GCSEs at the local comprehensive – including three Ds and an E – and studied media business at college while working part-time in Topshop.

When he was 15, his mum gave him a video camera for Christmas on which he shot his first videos. After the foxes, he began filming his friends. They were MCing and recording grime in its heyday. Delivering a new genre through a new medium, SBTV was born.

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Edwards was quickly taken on as an emblem for a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to poverty (Benjamin McMahon)

"He ran downstairs one time and said, 'Mummy, I've got a cheque from Google'," Mrs Edwards remembers. "They weren't for very much, at first." Her sights were set firmly on Jamal's schooling. "Whenever he said, 'Here's a cheque', I'd say, 'Well here are your study books'." Slowly but surely, however, the YouTube cheques began to outstrip his wages.

Then in 2011, he was invited to appear in an ad for Google Chrome. It was watched online more times than a counterpart featuring Justin Bieber. Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre invited Edwards to party with them and he quickly made the transition from internet to real-life fame. He was profiled in national newspapers, appeared on the front cover of Wired and featured in every young power list worth its salt. This year, he was awarded an MBE.

I speak to people who worked with Jamal in the early days of SBTV, who – while being overwhelmingly positive – say his success was in part down to being in the right place at the right time. But Edwards was quickly taken on as an emblem for a prevailing pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to poverty. He was the great striving poster boy.

Westminster was certainly keen to align with Edwards and he interviewed both David Cameron and Ed Miliband for SBTV. "Ed Miliband came to something I did with Ed Balls and Ken Livingstone. I said to him, 'I want to interview you for my channel'. I didn't think he'd do it but he said, 'Yeah, sure'."

What did he think of him? "He was quite cool..." Jamal begins – but is cut short. The door swings open in a bluster of wintery wind. A man comes into the café with his young son. "Sorry to bother you, brother, I just wanted to give you a shout-out," he says clapping hands with Edwards. They chat briefly and the man leaves. "Keep up the hard work," he says.

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As a local boy-done-good, Edwards is blessed with 'cut-through' that most candidates would kill for (Benjamin McMahon)

He is the fifth or sixth person to stop Edwards – we spent the morning taking pictures around Acton – to get a selfie or to ask how he's doing. He tries to regroup but he's been thrown. "With my Snapchat and that I make myself like, 'You can come and talk to me'," he says. "Ed Miliband and all these politicians, they eat, breathe, sleep, shit, just like I do. They're not aliens, they're normal people.

"The reason why people look at them different is that they've gone to a certain school or lived a certain life. But I look at it like everyone is sort of the same. I always try to make myself personable so people can come up to talk to me".

Of course, Edwards has the benefit, here, of not being a politician. As a local boy-done-good, he is blessed with 'cut-through' that most candidates would kill for. In our narrow, national political debate, he offers a rare voice from Britain 2015. Despite the bank balance, he is still High Street through-and-through – in all its ASOS-wearing, Nandos-eating, iPhone-toting glory. You could almost imagine Westminster wonks modelling a target demographic on him – Acton Guy.

All of which should stand him in good stead to be an ambassador for political engagement. If only he were a little more engaged himself. When I ask who his MP is, not only does he not know, but he seems confused by the question's premise. "Who's that?" Your MP, for your constituency. "What do you mean?" For Ealing and Acton. "I don't know," he says, instinctively reaching for his phone.

Like 56 per cent of 18-24-year-olds, he didn't vote in 2010 – and he says he might not this time around. Either way, he will turn up on 7 May, even if it is just to spoil his ballot. His own apathy stems, he believes, from a poor education.

"Do you want to do a test?" he says, looking out on to Acton High Street. "We should stop every single young person and say, 'Are you registered to vote?'. Most of them would say, 'No'.

"If you're educated in school," he goes on, "you can make an informed decision. At the moment, people look at all these politicians in suits and think, 'So what?'."

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Despite the bank balance, Edwards is still High Street through-and-through (Benjamin McMahon)

However, he is adamant that he and his friends are politically engaged. "All this saying we're disengaged – we're not disengaged," he says. "If we're given the platform to speak, we're going to speak. We're going to use our voices. Young people are more opinionated than ever."

To this end, he is currently commissioning artists to record tracks for SBTV that tackle current issues. He is also about to launch Bite News, a current affairs site producing content tailored to young people. And considering the silence of many of his peers, it seems unfair to criticise Edwards.

The only kickback he's had so far, he says, has been the result of over-exposure. "Some people are like, 'Why does Jamal get called for every single thing? It's like the New Statesman has his number on speed dial'."

All the while, he has been trying to recruit high-profile figures – although he won't say who – for the Bite the Ballot campaign. "I want help," he says, stirring his hot chocolate. "I don't want to mention names, I don't want to shame them. When I speak to other people with similar influence, they're like 'I don't know...' and I'm just like, 'Bro, sister, two years ago I didn't know nothing, it's one step at a time'."

Our final meeting takes place at Bite the Ballot's headquarters, on the first floor of a smart townhouse off Oxford Street. Jamal is checking emails on his phone. Starbucks have asked him to take part in an event and he is joking that he will do it for £50,000.

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Edwards in Bite the Ballot's HQ near Oxford Street (Benjamin McMahon)

Mike Sani, Bite the Ballot's CEO, is sat next to him. With his thick-rimmed glasses, expensive jeans and well-groomed beard, Sani could work at an advertising agency. He has the lingo, too, referring to traditional media as "trads" (largely part of the problem) and social media as "socials" (his solution). However, he comes from a background in teaching. As Edwards munches his way through a plastic pot of gummy sweets, Sani reels off Leaders Live's online stats: "One million minutes of content watched to date, 50 million impressions – unique people engaging with it on social media – 20,000 hashtags, 15,000 comments on YouTube videos, 22 minutes average dwell time. Leaders Live content watched in 120 countries, 88 per cent of viewers are in the UK."

He pauses, hovering over one of the stats. "Twenty-two minutes for a live stream – YouTube are saying that's fucking impressive." Which seems to validate Edwards' point – perhaps Britain's youth, despite not turning out at the ballot box, are politically engaged. Or maybe people over the age of 25 also use YouTube.

Sani also agrees with Edwards that change will be slow. "At the moment you have to scrape your way through the jargon, the nonsense, the fact you've never been told, the easy attitude of saying nothing will ever change," he says. "These are the things you're up against. It's a cultural shift. Really, you're trying to say to people, you're a citizen before you're a consumer."

Jamal's phone begins to buzz angrily. "I'm sorry guys, I've got to run," he says. "I've got to film a video in the office. I'm sorry. I've never done that, I just want the day to run on time," he says pushing back his chair. He mentioned he's off to a Burberry party later. And with that, he's off, a consumer and – perhaps, come 7 May – a citizen, too.

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