Young people and politics. It’s hard to picture the two of them together, and when you do, the picture is seldom a flattering one. Fuzzy-eyed, patchouli-scented kids chaining themselves to fences at nuclear power plants. Sniggering youths drawing male genitalia on their ballot papers in protest. Teenagers lazily clicking “share” on Russell Brand’s latest rant and reassuring themselves that they’re sticking it to the man. As a young person with a pretty enormous interest - not to mention a Masters - in politics, these stereotypes get right under my skin. And what gets under my skin even more is the fact that when you look at the statistics, the stereotypes seem to be right on the money.
When it comes to traditional participation, people aged between 18 and 24 are among the least likely to be politically engaged. They not only have consistently the lowest voter turnout of any group, they have also seen the <a>sharpest decline</a> in turnout over the past 50 years. At the last general election, turnout among 18-24s stood at just <a>44%</a>. At this year’s European Elections, that figure plummeted to just <a>13%</a>. Yet, in the run up to the Scottish Referendum on Independence, Scotland has seen the highest rate of voter registration in its history. A massive <a>80%</a> of Scotland’s 16 and 17 year olds have registered to vote in the referendum. Either the two years between 16 and 18 are so world-endingly awful that it kills this political mindedness completely, or there is something more to this issue than young people simply not wanting to do their bit.
Looking at voter turnout among 18-24s, it’s fairly clear that the further the issue is removed from their everyday lives, the lower turnout drops. The Independence Referendum is something that would instantly completely transform the lives of these young people, regardless of which way they are voting. When it comes to the UK general election, many young people feel that the issues and politicians in Westminster just aren’t relevant to them. And as for the European Parliament, most young people don’t even know what its function is. Young people vote on issues that they can identify with, that they feel they can make a difference on. So the question is, why don’t they feel this way about voting in our government?
The most common reasons I hear from non-voting young people are that they don’t feel represented by any party, that they don’t think their vote will make a difference and that they don’t want to participate in a system that they see as rigid, oppressive and unwilling to change. This is exacerbated by voices like Russell Brand telling young people that the best way to change a system is not to participate in it at all. To hear Brand tell it, to show up at a polling station and quietly put your “x” in the box is rolling over and accepting your fate as a mindless slave to the man. Show them who’s boss by refusing to take part. Stay at home, read some Machiavelli instead, that’ll teach them. Except actually, it won’t.
Not voting is probably the number one, guaranteed way to make sure that nothing will ever change. We tend to think that people vote for parties that represent them, and the people who aren’t represented don’t vote. I’d like to take that narrative and flip it on its head. I’d suggest that parties represent the people who vote. Political parties might fall into some basic ideological camps, but make no mistake, more than any set of values, more than any worldview, more than any promise, these politicians care about being in power. If you’re looking for a demonstration of this, look no further than the spectacular nose dive taken by the Liberal Democrats in the last four years, just for a whiff of power. And the easiest way to get into power is to win votes. By not voting, young people are giving the political parties total freedom to ignore us. If every single 18-24 year old in the UK turned up to vote at the next election, I guarantee that the politicians would have no choice but to court the youth vote. We’d have them running scared in an instant. Maybe they would drop tuition fees. Bring back EMA. Revoke the benefits cap for under 25s. Whatever it takes to get your little “x” in their box. The truth is, the political parties don’t care how many likes Russell Brand has, or how witty your protest placard is. Sure, 10,000 students marching against tuition fees might coax some placatory rumblings from politicians, but in a few days, it’s bumped off the news cycle and they can breathe a sigh of relief and go right back to ignoring us. Not voting isn’t revolutionary, it’s just feeding a system that says politicians don’t need to take young people into account.
Now, fellow 18-24s, I’d like to speak directly to you. Sorry, over 25s, but you can go call your broker or mow your lawn or whatever it is you real grown ups do. Alright folks, I need you to do something for me. Get yourself on the electoral register. Seriously, I don’t want you to sit and share this article (well okay, I do, but that’s not the point), I want you to get on the register, turn up and vote. It doesn’t matter who you vote for. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if you subscribe to the stereotype and draw naughty pictures on the ballot paper. Go right ahead. You just have to be there. Like so many things, it comes down to cold, hard numbers. And when we’ve got the numbers, I promise, the politicians will have to sit up and listen.