I was 18 and in my first year at university at the time of the last general election. It was the first time I’d been able to exercise my right to vote; an obligation which I took very seriously, considering all my options before carefully placing my cross.
To this day I remember the agonising wait to find out whether a coalition government would be formed, eyes fixed on the BBC live feed as though it was a particularly gripping episode of The Bridge. In the days leading up to the election, after watching the televised debates, I became a bone fide expert, casually throwing around terms like hung parliament, kingmaker, and minority government, much to the delight of my surprised parents. I even went down to Westminster to see Gordon Brown drive out of the Downing Street gates.
So I was saddened, although not altogether surprised to discover that, according to a survey conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, 42 per cent of people aged 16-24 claim to have no interest in politics. The survey’s publication comes just months after Russell Brand whipped up a storm by urging people not to vote, on the basis that all politicians are corrupt and untrustworthy. (Thanks for that, Russell.)
But as young people become increasingly disenchanted with party politics, the need for them to engage with the system is greater than ever. Not only are they directly affected by decisions made by the likes of Michael Gove and George Osborne, but they also represent Britain’s political future. If an entire generation of kids care more about voting for the latest boy band on the X Factor than for the next government then we’ll have a real struggle on our hands in a few years’ time.
The heady heights of Westminster must seem a long way away to teenagers living on the breadline in council estates across the UK, and it’s hard not to become disaffected by a political structure which allows wealthy politicians to tear lumps out of each other every Wednesday in what has become – as Speaker John Bercow has noted - the pantomime-like tradition of PMQs. The disconnect between fiscal policies debated in dingy chambers in central London and what young people experience on a day-to-day basis is stark. Add the right-wing media’s never-ending insistence that politicians can’t be trusted and it soon becomes glaringly obvious why young people switch off when talk turns to politics.
Last year the British Social Attitudes survey found that the younger electorate were more likely to express themselves politically by organising a demonstration, or boycotting environmentally unfriendly products, than by voting for a political party. One only has to look at the 2010 riots over tuition fees to realise this is true. Demonstration politics is a young person’s game. Ditching your dissertation in favour of marching in protest is something every student should do at least once in their lifetime. But one day of marching, face paint and hand-made banners is not enough.
Anyone who chooses not to vote may as well fashion a gag out of Duct tape and plaster it over their mouth. Not only did men and women die for our right to vote (that fact alone should have everyone running for the ballot box) but voting gives, and has always given, the general public a voice. Protest all you like, there is no greater demonstration of a person’s political beliefs than a scribbled cross on a ballot paper.
Maybe we should lower the electoral age to 16, or even introduce a virtual ballot box to make voting as easy as liking a photo on Facebook. But whatever we choose to do, it’s important, nay, essential, to engage young people in the political issues of the day, week, month, year. If not, we risk waking up one morning in 20 years’ time to discover that One Direction are running the country.