Shouting at young people isn't going to make them more likely to vote

The deadline for voter registration is imminent, and the left badly needs more young voters. But the way to engage them is by making politics relevant to them, not barking patronising orders

Simon Sapper
Sunday 21 May 2017 22:32 BST
We know young people engage with issues they care about, so that's what we should focus on when encouraging them to vote
We know young people engage with issues they care about, so that's what we should focus on when encouraging them to vote (PA)

“Your f**king apathy is the biggest threat to democracy,” is the judgement on young non-voters in Jonathan Pie's latest piece of agit-prop.

Pie (the popular creation of comedian Tom Walker) makes compulsive viewing and his analysis is as trenchant as always. His contribution is the latest in the canon of work detailing how young people have been particularly badly affected by Government policies over recent years whilst expressing anxiety, bewilderment, frustration and – in Pie's case – outright anger that young people do not turn out to vote in anything like the same numbers as their older counterparts.

It’s true: If participation rates were the same for all age groups, the impact on the UK election would be very significant. Possibly a game-changer, given that according to the BBC, it would equate to two million extra votes, which is an average of nearly 3,100 per Westminster seat. But shouting at people rarely encourages engagement, if anything it usually has the opposite effect.

The frustration masks an obvious and incontrovertible fact: there is an absence of motivation on their part. “Voting doesn't change anything,” remains in currency just as much as the Emma Goldman quip that it relates to: “If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.”

General Election round-up: May 21

There is, though, a growing momentum behind a challenge to this view. The involvement of 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish independence referendum shows that when there is a clear issue at stake young voter participation rises dramatically. And the power of the ballot to affect profound change has been demonstrated by Brexit and the election of candidates, like Trump, seemingly against all expectations and electoral mathematics. These were things that just simply could not happen, we were told at the outset. Now look.

Combine these illustrations of how voting leads to change with high-profile figures of champions of the right to vote, from the Suffragettes to Nelson Mandelas, and there is a potent message.

The "voting doesn't matter" falsehood is disintegrating slowly but surely, and thank heavens for that. But an equally powerful mental block – "I don't do politics" – is still very much with us.

This is particularly challenging because it reflects the axiom that the more you want people, especially – it seems – young people, to do one thing, the inclination to comply declines in direct proportion. This is why anger, expressed flamboyantly by Jonathan Pie but more studiously by others, is not only misplaced, but counterproductive.

Whether you "do" politics or not, you cannot avoid the impact and consequences of it. This is a message that can be strengthened – and needs to be. Quite simply if you do not "do" politics, then politics will "do” you.

There are some indications that voter registration rates are increasing as we approach next month’s general election. Certainly there has been a strong focus on this – both from Government, (exemplified by letters, pre-dating the election call, to all higher education establishments from ministers Jo Johnson and Nick Boles respectively, urging their support) and more street-level operators such as Voting Counts. We will need to wait until June 9 to see if these efforts have succeeded in changing long term trends, but nothing can be taken for granted.

So, the deadline to register to vote is midnight, May 22. It could hardly be easier, and this is the message we need to send young people. Voting matters; it changes societies and improves lives. It could change your life. By giving up the ability to vote, we become the very antithesis of young, free and opinionated – we become a person with no voice.

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