George Lindars-Hammond is 20 years old and hardly looks a day older. Originally from Bath, he is about to go into his final year of a Politics and History degree at the University of Sheffield. He is also, however, a Labour councillor for Hillsborough in Sheffield, a ward of approximately 19,000 people. He is the city’s youngest councillor.
“I’ve been a member of the Labour party for three and a half years and I’ve been in Sheffield for two years,” explains George energetically. “I started getting involved with the Labour party around the same time as I completely fell in love with Sheffield – those two things united into me wanting to run for council.”
Local government is not the most glamorous political arena. This May’s local elections saw the lowest voter turnout since 2000, with an estimated 32% making it to the polling station. The number of students who vote in local elections is notoriously low and the average age for a local councillor in the UK was 60 in 2010. But some students across the country are bucking this trend.
“A lot of people would say, ‘Oh, you’re far too young’ and that’s fine – they’re allowed to have their opinion,” says George. “But it’s something that I felt that I could do now and something I thought I could contribute.”
Pearl Sangha, 22, ran for election in her final year of a degree in International Relations at Swansea University. “It was stressful,” she remembers, “Very stressful.” She was one of four Labour students from her university to compete in May. Three of the four won council seats, with Pearl winning by only ten votes against a councillor who had held the seat for eight years – something she refers to as her very own “Portillo moment.”
“I really didn’t expect to win,” she says. “I didn’t expect to, but I really wanted to.” Pearl partly attributes her victory to her pledge to foster a relationship between the student community and local residents. “There are a few tensions and students need to show residents that we know where they’re coming from.”
The 2006 Electoral Administration Act lowered the minimum age of council representatives from 21 to 18, causing grumblings in certain quarters. But student councillors are adamant that they are providing much-needed representation for young people in their areas. “Students don’t get heard enough,” argues George. “I think it’s important that people of all ages get involved or the council just isn’t going to represent the whole.”
Getting students properly represented on local councils is a difficult task. “Students think, ‘Oh, I’m only here for two or three years, so it doesn’t make a difference to me.’” But if students don’t vote now then they will never be represented, says George. “Don’t you wish you’d had your voice heard a few years ago when decisions that are important to you were being made? There needs to be a consistent student voice.”
As well as issues of representation, there are plenty of other good reasons for students to get involved in local government. Natasha Airey, a Conservative councillor in Windsor, was elected in her final year of studying European Studies at Royal Holloway at the age of 21: “It’s fantastic to get involved at university because you’ve got the time and flexibility. You can really get on top of what you’re doing and understand what the role of councillor entails. Now I’m in full time work, but I’ve had that learning period.”
Young people have the fitness and energy to do the job well, thinks Tom Hollis, 19, a Liberal Democrat councillor for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, who is studying Law at Sheffield University: “We have more time on our hands, but we’ve also got more enthusiasm and can do more. I start at 6 and finish at 8 and I’ve got the energy to do that.”
“Time management is key”, says Natasha, who, because of a by-election, had to campaign for two elections during her final year. George agrees: “I have my blackberry and laptop and I spend a lot of time answering emails and phone calls. I could be anywhere doing it, at home, at university or in the town hall. But I’m doing it all the time.
“Being a councillor is very likely to have an impact on my degree mark, but I don’t think it will drag me down too far,” says George. “Most students sit around and play x-box all day, so I’ve just got to do less of that. There will be tough times next year [his final year], but I will survive them.”
Councillor allowances vary wildly from place to place – from around £5,000 to £20,000 per year – but they are usually high enough to be equivalent to a part-time job. “It keeps me ticking over and stops me from having to find another job,” says Tom. But it’s certainly more time-consuming than your average student job. “It is a part-time salary, but a full-time job,” comments Pearl. “It’s very hard work.”
And an important plus is that at it looks pretty impressive on the CV. “I want to do things that are politics related in my future career and this is great experience,” says Natasha. “It’s really good in terms of practical experience, but you also get responsibility. You’re changing the lives of thousands of people.”
Whereas most students and recent graduates start with internships and entry-level work, councillors are thrown straight into the business of government. “You can have a say in things like what shops there are and how the local economy is going, to cleanliness and school places and social care,” explains Natasha. “It beats running around and getting coffee.”
Pearl thinks that it’s time we rethink what young people are capable of contributing to local government. “We work so hard,” she says. “We don’t just make good leaflet deliverers ... We can do so much more than that.” Although their politics may be different, all four student councillors agree on one thing – it’s time for young people to get involved.