I was in Manchester last night, hosting the second of our iDebates in the towering neo-gothic splendour of Manchester Town Hall. The arresting People’s History Museum is down the road – well worth a visit. One of its exhibits covers the slaughter of demonstrating mill workers 195 years ago at nearby St Peter’s Field (the Peterloo Massacre; now St Peter’s Square) which led to the first major reform of Parliament in 1832. More recently, Manchester has been setting records: lowest turnout at the 2010 general election (44 per cent for Manchester Central, against 65 per cent nationally), and just 18 per cent for the 2012 by-election, the lowest anywhere in the UK since the middle of the Second World War.
A fitting setting, then, for our motion, “A generation of young people is right to give up on Westminster.” About 420 students were in the crowd; the ones who spoke, the ones we met afterwards over drinks, were razor-sharp, quick-witted, political, not enamoured with Westminster politics.
Have young people disengaged from politics? Or have politicians disengaged from young people? Encouragingly, for all of us, the motion was overwhelmingly defeated.
About 30 people stuck up their hands when I asked who in the room would consider becoming an MP. One of them was Cory Bernard, 23, a chemical engineering graduate at Manchester who is about to start an OU degree in politics, philosophy and economics. “Suffrage should be extended to 16-year-olds,” Cory argued. “They can join the military, get married and leave education.”
Charlie Goldsmith, 19, an international politics student from Chesterfield, explained: “I spoiled my ballot paper last time. I couldn’t bring myself not to turn up, but I couldn’t vote for any of them either.”
A sizeable contingent from Sheffield Hallam, led by debating society president Zee Ahmed, lobbied for their own i visit.
Most of the audience said they intend to vote in next year’s election – and most of them have not yet decided who they’ll back. Sounds like an opportunity for a sympathetic politician...