Young people make up a huge proportion of the voting public, yet apathy reigns supreme - why?
If Prime Minster Gordon Brown had called an early general election, would you have taken any interest, or voted if you’re old enough - what does the research say?
Just prior to the 2005 election, a Mori poll found that only 52 per cent of young people of voting age actually intended to vote. The survey found that less than half (45 per cent) felt they have sufficient knowledge about political issues and barely a majority (53 per cent) found it of any interest. In a previous Mori poll, only 9 per cent felt they knew what their local council was responsible for. That same poll found that only 35 per cent of young people felt they actually knew what their rights were. Another study, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, taking in 90,000 14-year-olds living in 28 different countries, found that young English people have less understanding of democratic processes than their counterparts in other countries.
Why does it matter?
Apathy means a lower turn out at elections, which in turn can lead to misrepresentation at both national and local level. It also put a dent in the whole notion of democracy: if people don’t vote then their voice isn’t being heard. What has the Government tried to do about it? In a bid to address young people's disaffection from the political process, David Blunkett – when he was Education Secretary – introduced citizenship education for young people to study as part of the National Curriculum.
Are there other organisations that attempt to address political apathy among young people?
There are various initiatives and organisations that aim to counter political apathy by encouraging young people's participation in society and enhancing their understanding of citizenship. These include YouthBank ( www.youthbank.org.uk), Operation Black Vote ( www.obv.org.uk), Theyworkfor you.com, UK Youth Parliament ( www.uk youthparliament.org.uk ) and the Votes at 6 campaign ( www.votesat16.org.uk). Hands Up ( www.handsupfor.org) is a campaign that aims to improve the ways in which people under the age of 24 can engage with and change the society they live in, while HeadsUp ( www.headsup.org.uk) is a place where young people can debate political issues and current affairs. The debates involve the UK’s top decision-makers from Parliament and the Government who want to understand the views and experiences of young Britain.
Are schools at fault?
Some argue that the introduction of school councils and similar consultation groups has led not only to a healthy student voice, but to getting young people’s minds in shape for voting in the future. However, in a National Federation for Educational Research survey, 98 per cent of secondary school headteachers claimed to have a school council, while only 45 per cent of pupils said they had been involved in electing school councillors – a significant disparity. In fact, school councils can be a barrier to effective, democratic participation if they are tokenistic, with only the most articulate young people on the council. This can leave those less self-assured without a say.
What the experts say
Opinion is divided when it comes to students’ interest in politics. We have asked a number of experts and students what they think about it.
The YES camp
Julia Goldsworthy, MP for Falmouth and Camborne
Many of the students I meet are very engaged in political issues. Indeed, when I attend debates it is often students that ask the more challenging and unexpected questions. There is clearly a problem with regard to getting young people out to vote – too many simply feel that their vote won’t make a difference. But if you look at single-issue campaigns, like those relating to the environment or international affairs, many of them are very well supported by students. There are clearly lessons that Parliament and politicians can learn from this.
Verity Coyle, student network coordinator, Amnesty International
Students do care, but not in the way people have historically understood politics, because it is no longer about party politics. Many young people that I know find it hard to associate with any of the major parties. Forty years ago, if you wanted to engage with politics and influence policy the only option was to join a party. From the Sixties onwards there has been huge growth in the NGO sector. There is a huge variety of organisations, ranging from local pressure groups that get together to protect the local environment to international organisations. More often than not, students are engaged and active – locally, nationally and internationally.
Gemma Tumelty, NUS president
The misconception here is that caring about politics necessitates involvement in a political party, and because student interest in the parties has reduced, students don’t care about politics. This is a lazy argument. In fact, students have played a leading role in many of the defining political campaigns of our generation: historically– through the anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear movements – and more recently, with campaigns against university fees, climate change, the war in Iraq and international issues such as Burma and Darfur. To anyone who is under the impression that students don’t care about politics, I’d advise a quick trip to a university or college campus as a swift remedy.
Fatima Kanji, 17, is the UK Youth Parliament member for Brent and a student at Kingsbury High School
These days, many students steer clear of traditional party politics and engage in a more proactive way. This can be seen by the nature of political debates at UK Youth Parliament sessions, where discussions vary from sex and relationships education to consumer choices. However we go about it, politics dictates the way our lives are lived and it will forever have a relevance and impact. When I turn 18 I will.
The NO camp
Dr Darren G. Lilleker, lecturer at Bournemouth University and researcher in political communication and voter engagement
Most students, it appears, feel their issues are not addressed. They are highly cynical of promises made by politicians and often suggest they feel unrepresented, disenfranchised and that politics is all talk, irrelevant and nothing but spin. As the political parties focus on who is likely to vote they ignore groups who turn out less, and so many students can give few positive reasons for voting.
Ben Greene, 16, is an A-level student at Peter Symonds College in Hampshire
The reason why politics doesn’t appeal to teenagers is because it seems very egotistical and superficial. The politicians appear to want to do what’s best for the good of the country, but I think they will say anything as long as it gets them votes and into more powerful positions. Also, the whole system is still very traditional and seems to be a platform for middle-aged men to argue. At one time, I thought about studying government and politics, but decided it was boring.
Ellie Levenson, tutor, Goldsmiths College, University of London
I teach undergraduate students studying media and communications and a large number of them don’t follow British politics at all, though some of them are interested in international politics. I was stunned a while ago when nobody could name the Chancellor of the Exchequer when it was still Gordon Brown. Students seem to be excited by the glamour of international affairs but not realise that the point of politics is to bring change to normal lives. Talk about local or national issues and their eyes often glaze over. Perhaps more emphasis needs to be put on politics as a means to bring about change rather than politics as an end in itself.
Kirsty O’Connor, 20, is studying PR at Leeds Metropolitan University
As a student of today I pay no attention to politics. No references are made to us in any campaign manifestos, and in my opinion tuition fees increase in order to fund the war in Iraq while Britain’s infrastructure crumbles. Politicians worry about falling numbers of young voters, but are they really that surprised? If they ignore student’s needs and opinions we actively choose to ignore them. Do politicians not realise that students are the future of British politics? We need to be nurtured not ignored!
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