To see a dramatic change in youth voter turnout, investment needs to be made in political education in schools; not hashtags and advertising, says Kate Crowhurst
Democracy has been likened in the past to two wolves and a lamb, voting what to have for lunch. Recently, it was celebrated by the BBC on the 750th anniversary of the first Parliament of elected representatives at Westminister, according to The Telegraph.
BBC ‘Democracy Day’ included an interview with youth representatives who insisted that the root of young people being disengaged from politics lay in the fact that 16 year olds couldn’t sufficiently “get involved” because they lacked the right to vote in elections.
These were, however, young representatives on camera; young people who quite clearly were already engaged politically in order to seek community leadership.
The issue of young people disengaging from politics deserves further scrutiny than simply confirming the vote for those who are already involved.
Exploring the issue of youth disengagement in politics reveals an issue of voter turnout immediately: young people, by majority, are simply not voting. For the forthcoming May election, polls suggest around 60 per cent of young people will not cast a vote.
This trend is fairly recent; while in 1964 there was little difference between the 18-24 and the over 65 voting demographics, by 2005 only 28 per cent of 18-24 year olds were voting compared with 75 per cent of over 65s.
This trend of young people choosing not to vote is at odds with the rise in youth volunteering in community action.
While these young people are individuals with their own reasons for taking part or abstaining from activities like volunteering, it is important that, as a majority, they vote. Campaigns like Voting Counts, have focused on the importance of young people voting in order to provide governments with legitimacy and ensure that politicians make policies with young people in mind. Put simply, the system lacks legitimacy without the participation of a key group of voters in it.
At this point we could listen to Russell Brand and jump at his vague concept of a revolution. However, anyone who owns a history book will know how they generally turn out.
Reforming democracy has been a topic of much debate with some solutions promoting politicians as the answer.
Looking to Barack Obama as the rule rather than the debonair exception, politicians have been encouraged to “get involved” via social media (a much bandied about phrase because someone in marketing once heard that young people communicate via hashtags).
The issue is that young people switch off when engagement serves more as political advertising than genuine debate. From the look of most politicians’ tweets, this often seems to be the case.
Others have suggested that young people themselves need to do more to engage with politics – a lovely fluffy suggestion until it becomes clear that, for the most part, this is by becoming a representative.
Parliament Week last November was considered a great success at engaging young people, but when you look at the fact that only 300 young people took part in a parliamentary debate, and that online engagement for this event reached only 13,463 interactions, it becomes clear that these initiatives fall short of reaching the 3.3 million first time voters eligible to participate in the forthcoming May election.
Changing the way people vote by awarding politically active 16 year olds voting rights will not change the fact that, by the time they are eligible, most 18 year olds choose not to vote anyway.
Having written a policy paper on the issue for the Wilberforce Society – a student-run policy group – it became clear to me that youth voter disengagement was increasingly an issue of education.
There is a structure for a common core curriculum in place throughout UK state schools which delivers in its current form a patchy and inconsistent citizenship education which serves more for inserting The Thick of It style political spin than meaningful lessons.
A politics education curriculum, taught as a humanities subject, would deliver back to the humanities the critical thinking skills that have been stripped away from the discipline in recent years in favour of content.
It would equip young people with a grounding in political theory, the knowledge to dissect the views put forward by their representatives and the ability to debate with them on best policy practice.
Providing relevant resources in political theory for teachers to put such a curriculum into practice is key; a challenge that enterprise could rise to were the demand in place to fill the current lack of politics literature aimed at young people.
Broadcasting also needs to communicate political practices in an accessible way. Programmes like BBC3’s Free Speech showed that young people are increasingly interested and willing to participate in debate – we need to match their interest with information communicated consistently in an accessible way; not at 12pm on a weekday.
To see a dramatic change in youth voter turnout, investment needs to be made in the core curriculum, resources and broadcasting required to truly engage young people in political discussions as informed citizens.
Arming the lamb against the wolves will ensure that young people are not engaged via hashtags and thrown into the voting booths at a younger age, but rather actually have a grounding in political theory and the information they need to make an informed decision in May.