How young people can hurt the coalition

Under 25s are a much greater electoral force than they realise.

What has the coalition got against young people? This is the question haunting the blogosphere after David Cameron announced his intention to scrap housing benefit to under-25s. With youth unemployment already over one million, EMA scrapped, tuition fees tripled, Connexions services shut and the Future Jobs Fund closed, this prime minister is starting to develop something of a reputation.

But the next question is this: What damage could young people do back? I've been looking at the data, and three interesting findings emerge from the numbers.

First, since the 1970s, winning parties have always won at least a third of the youth vote in general elections (scroll down to the pink chart here). People might assume that the Conservatives were different, but a difficult fact for lefties is that 42 per cent of young people aged 18-24 supported Margaret Thatcher when she first came to power.

The interesting exception is the present Conservative party. When David Cameron was elected in 2010, he won just 30 per cent of the youth vote. Youth representation in government manifested itself that year through the Liberal Democrats, the party with the lowest average age of supporter.

But now that youth support for the LibDems is hemorrhaging, an opportunity is opening up for Labour. An illuminating ICM poll for the Guardian shows that in the month before the general election, some 44 per cent of young people aged 18-24 planned to vote Lib Dem. A similar poll taken two years on showed that figure had dropped to seven per cent. 

Idealistic about change, the Liberal Democrats’ decisions in office will burn deep, like getting dumped by your first love. It remains to be seen whether the party can ever win back that trust. The youth vote at the next election is now open, but it must be earned.

Point two. Young people help steer electoral turning points. A significant chunk of young people might have supported Thatcher in 1979, but when they got sick of austerity, they switched in large numbers. When teens and tweenagers flocked to the polls in 1997, some 49 per cent voted for Tony Blair.

And when Labour lost power in 2010, that figure dropped to 30 per cent.

Because the youth vote is now massively untapped, it has great potential for any party that dares to inspire it.

There’s a tendency to assume young people are naturally more inclined to vote for the left, but that is simply not the case. David Cameron might not have won round the bulk of the youth vote, but they were no more likely to vote for Labour. If Ed Miliband wants to capture the hearts of the next generation, he'll have to work harder.

A key opportunity to do that is the shift to individual voter registration. Research from the Electoral Commission shows that young people and private renters make up the two biggest groups of unregistered voters, and the government’s proposals threaten to lock out even more. If Labour does go ahead with its mooted voter registration drive and includes some targetted work for young people and students, there will be strategic as well as moral benefits. After all, if you feel a party cares about your voice being heard, you're more likely to vote for that party.

There are other ways to capture the youth vote that go deeper than slamming the government. Introducing votes to 16s – with some even discussing the possibly of making electoral participation compulsory for first time voters - alongside the possibility of voting through social media would encourage young people to get involved. Migrant communities continue to vote for Labour because the party gave them the vote; young people could do the same.

It's true that appealing to younger age groups is risky because, at present, they are significantly less likely to vote than older voters. In fact the Guardian ICM poll shows that on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being certain to vote, 18-24s score an average of less than 6, compared to over 65s who score 8.6. But as the huge turnouts at youth elections show, this is unlikely to mean they are uninterested in politics. A more likely explanation is that they're disillusioned with parties and politicians.

Of course whoever wins 2015 will have to form a party that speaks to all ages. But at the moment this coalition is failing to do that. No one likes the idea of young people struggling, no matter what age they are. Grandparents are worried about their families. Pensioners are concerned about schools. By speaking more to young people, politicians would be speaking to the nation.

 

David Cameron talks to young people at a careers centre in Hammersmith. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.