'Yoof' spurns the ballot box

In A sunny squat in north London a gaggle of twenty-somethings are making the final preparations for a mass demonstration. Seen through a haze of cannabis smoke against a backdrop of bundled placards and soaking lentils, their tufty beards and slogan T-shirts could belong a different era of anti-Vietnam protesters. In a general election which has, as a core theme, an apathetic youth who just don't care as much as their parents did in the Sixties, these young people and the thousands who yesterday turned out to march alongside them are testimony to a generation which still dreams of a brighter future.

Alarm bells first rang when MORI research revealed that many young people were not intending to use their vote in the 1997 election at all. Only one in three believed voting could make a difference. The result has been bitter tirades against young people's innate laziness. One columnist recently summed up the impasse as: "Yoof is back, yoof are bored, and yoof is telling anyone who wants to know that yoof is uninterested in this election campaign."

Yet "yoof" is also fighting back from outside the constraints of formal politics. Yesterday's demonstration was called by young people to support the Liverpool dockers and to register disapproval of "the increasingly meaningless ritual" of the general election. The Runway Two protesters at Manchester Airport are mainly comprised of young people, as were those at the Newbury bypass. "Yoof" is also getting organised, networking together and working in tandem with other protest groups including Liverpool dockers and London transport workers.

In Hayes and Harlington, Dan Farrow, a 23-year-old writer on the music magazine Mixmag, is standing as the All Night Party candidate. "Young people have got nothing to vote for," he says. "I'm just trying to highlight the problem." His manifesto plans include the liberalisation of anti-drugs legislation, 50 per cent tax on pay over pounds 60,000 and an equal age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals.

"Young people are still political, many of them just aren't party political - and who can blame them? Nobody's listening to them," says Matthew Collin, author of a new book on the history and effects of dance culture, Altered State. He laughs at the mention of Rock The Vote, an initiative aimed at getting young people to the ballot box. "I think the use of 'rock' is in itself an indication of how out of synch older people are," he says.

"Just because young people don't want to turn up to put a pointless cross on a ballot paper, doesn't mean they aren't fighting their battle in their own way," says 24-year-old Theba, of the direct action group Reclaim The Streets, whose methods include turning high streets into beaches. Last year, without warning, they poured tons of sand all over the centre of Islington, then filled the streets with jugglers, food stalls, buckets and spades and the sounds of a thumping, cycle-powered sound system.

A primary focus of the different groups on the march from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square yesterday was the 1996 Criminal Justice Act which, in criminalising a range of fringe activities from the "repetitive beats" of techno music to the protests of the anti-roads lobby and hunt saboteurs, has ironically brought together many different action groups on the fringes of politics.

"Michael Howard did us a massive favour by introducing the Criminal Justice Act," says one activist.

"Without it we would all be fighting our own separate battles, but now it's given us a focus so we can fight injustice together. In a way, it's probably the best thing the Tories could have done for young people."