Politics is a peculiar thing, not the very least for a young and naive 12 year old.
I remember the exact moment my inner spark and passion first came alive – it was in the midst of the classroom mania that often dominated an inner city, state comprehensive. As my Citizenship teacher painstakingly tried to explain the structure of Government to a group of rambunctious teenagers, I listened with intent and found myself questioning everything she shared.
That was where my journey began. I’m not one to put myself upon a pedestal but if we’re talking youth politics – I’ve walked the talk. From Youth Councils to Youth Parliaments, I spent my younger years talking current affairs with my contemporaries and advocating the ‘youth voice’ on a local, national and international level.
At 16, it was time to choose my A Levels, naturally, my experiences played a key part in informing my choices. Politics was my love – my passion, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way. With a spring in my step I entered my first lesson, and began conversing with my classmates. I sat, aghast as one asked “what is an MP?” and then another “How does the Houses of Parliament work?”
I stopped for a moment, sighed, then thought to myself “don’t be ostentatious” – not every young person is the same, nor did they spend their teenage years perusing The Times and attending debates. Was I a bit of a ‘nerd’? Of course. I couldn’t help it. In the years that followed it became apparent to me that not only did our schools, youth provision, and our Government fail to engage the masses, but as a generation, we failed ourselves.
Our political education (or lack thereof) has failed us.
For the sake of argument, let me echo my contemporaries and consider voter turnout as an indicator for political awareness. I’m not going to point the blame at one particular party, but the figures speak for themselves; general election turnout has been on the decline (with fluctuation) throughout history. See post-1997; 71.4% (1997) 59.4% (2001) 61.4% (2005) and 65.1% (2010) of the population sauntered to the polling booths to cast their vote – the numbers speak for themselves.
Socio-political and economic changes during this period were not particularly favourable toward the electorate, granted. Meaningful engagement and action became secondary to bringing our country through a treacherous storm.
The fragmentation of the electorate presents a greater cause for concern.
We need to consider the ‘youth vote’ – that catchment range of 18-24 year olds. I shan’t overload you with statistics any further, but in 2010 only 44% voted. Under half. When scaled up to reflect the national percentage, this results in only a very small minority of the 65.1% total electorate being aged 18-24.
When we’re talking of transparency and accountability, surely such a low turnout means that the youth voice is more a mere whisper than that of a grand address, professed via a booming megaphone…
Politics is not ‘sexy’ to the common man, let alone to a young person going through the myriad of experiences that dominate the transition between youth – adolescence. I cannot speak on behalf of every young person. Is politics boring? Apparently. Are politicians out of touch with young people? I’ve been told. Have young people simply had enough? I’ve been told so too.
The fact remains; young people are not voting. Simple as.
Perhaps voter turnout is reflected upon the perceived ability to impact upon change? The quixotic years of 1997 under Blair, and the promise of hope and change in 2010 seemingly provided the populace with more of an incentive – the vote was ‘worth’ more than that of previous years.
In an idealistic world the demographic would move with the times to reflect greater engagement. But as we enter the future, we are faced with the possibility of a generation who will be less politically engaged, aware and active. Forget the romantics, what if they refuse to vote and become consumed by the (to coin Orwellian rhetoric) “impassive masses”? The youth practitioner in me finds such hard to accept, whereas the nerd is awaiting results with bated breath.
Disregard voting, even if for just a moment; by what other measure do we determine political awareness and meaningful engagement? Are young people disengaged from the political system or engaging in such through other means? It would be unfair of me to dismiss the latter.
One of the many points of discussion we can refer to is that of ‘social action’ – the rhetoric is becoming more romanticized, yet prevalent. When reading my biography you will find that I am currently operating in two roles – one as the Youth Participation Manager within the voluntary sector,and the other within the Commissioning team for a landmark Government-initiated youth scheme, who place great emphasis upon social action as a means of preparing young people for the future.
I could go on forever, what do we deem as ‘effective’ political engagement? For some it comes from acting upon the knowledge gained in the classroom, for others, the participation outside of it. Does knowing what an MP is encourage young people to vote? I cannot sit here and tell. I’m not asserting that Politics has to be appealing – to be sexy, but there needs to be at least an awareness – a basic level of knowledge that all should possess (consumption of which, comes through choice) – not only as the citizens of today, but as the agents of change for tomorrow.
That is something that can be taught; in the classroom, in the youth club, in the home… anywhere.
I’m forever amazed by the actions, abilities and power of young people. I have witnessed some incredible work throughout my years and know how much of an impact even the smallest levels of engagement can have upon the life of an individual. The optimist in me knows that young people have the potential to bring about change, the greatness of which can only be determined through their own force and might.
A lost generation? No. A generation with opportunity? Yes. Do young people want to act? Who knows – perhaps they’ve simply had enough.
I am no longer the naive 12 year old in a Citizenship class, nor am I Alexander, admiring the many worlds to conquer.
This is no ‘call to arms’, but young people; it’s time to turn on the megaphone.