When the Manic Street Preachers were photographed striking various revolutionary poses during their visit to Cuba last month, the most noticeable thing was how quaint it all looked. Youthful rebellion has never seemed so absent from popular culture since records (of the seven-inch variety) first appeared.
Seattle, the Zapatistas and the May Day rumbles in London suggest that some radical energy remains. But, when it comes to mainstream politics, the conventional wisdom is that most people in their teens and early twenties are switched off. Is this just the now-familiar "voter apathy" dressed up in trainers, or does it represent a more fundamental shift in attitudes? Is trying to corral the younger generation into the polling booths just a waste of time? Can today's politicians ever hope to capture the aspirations of the young?
Those are the questions that generationNEXT will set out to answer. Over the next seven weeks, up to the expected election date of 3 May, we shall be exploring the views of Britain's 15- to 21-year-olds: the first-time voters of this election and their younger siblings who will be the first-time voters next time. Increasingly defiant of any social categorisation, notoriously fickle in their relationships with brands and with traditional institutions, this group is much discussed (but rarely involved) in political conversations.
We have reached this group through Another.com, an internet company that has been successful with young people because it offers cool e-mail addresses without the corporate associations of Hotmail and AOL. We have invited Another.com's most active users to respond to an e-mail survey.
The result is a sample far bigger than one gets in most opinion polls: our first set of questions yielded more than 8,000 responses. We cannot claim that the sample is statistically representative - not least because it obviously excludes those without access to computers - but we believe that it will produce rich and illuminating data on what very large numbers of young people think about contemporary politics.
"I really can't stand politics as it is boring, yet important," was how one of our first respondents (surveyed in the first week of March) put it. More than half our sample could see little or no difference between the political parties, but three-quarters felt it important to use their vote. A similar proportion would like to vote in the general election if they had the chance. Only 5 per cent didn't think voting was important, while another 10 per cent said they did not know what was involved.
This may not be as stark a picture as some expect - a 77 per cent turnout would be higher than for any election in recent British history. But questions about the impact and relevance of politics bring out a story that is less positive. A quarter of respondents never talk about politics with their families (a similar proportion say they are not interested in politics at all), and almost two-fifths (39 per cent) never discuss politics with their friends. Fewer than a third confessed to more than a slight interest in politics. Perhaps most striking is that 43 per cent answered "no" to the question "Do politics or politicians have any impact on your life?".
While the majority clearly have some sense of political engagement, there appears to be deep scepticism about how much of a difference formal politics actually makes. As one respondent put it: "I believe that we have a good political system, even if both parties have essentially the same policies. Politics now is more about public satisfaction than running a country."
When asked about parties, only 23 per cent said there was one party which tackles most of the issues that concern them. Only 4 per cent were members of a political party. In contrast, 19 per cent are members of a campaigning organisation such as Greenpeace or Shelter. Fifty-two per cent said that there was little or no difference between the two main parties.
In the contest between party leaders, Tony Blair came out as "harder" (that is to say, he came out on top) by 56 to 44 per cent - less than the conventional margin between the two men in satisfaction ratings. More generally, there was a sense that today's politicians are not the group that these people turn to for inspiration, although their lists of inspiring individuals - Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Bono from U2 - were sprinkled with politicians of the past. "Politics is important and young people should have a say in how the country is run but we need some normal politicians," griped one respondent.
So what do these young people really care about? Asked which were the most important issues to them, 71 per cent nominated schools and 80 per cent universities and colleges. Seventy-one per cent said that doctors, hospitals and nurses matter, while 63 per cent went for crime and policing. In this, generationNEXT mirrors the priorities of the general public. Among the issues they volunteered, the environment came highest, followed by animal rights and drugs. Benefits for single parents, a single European currency and military action overseas come low in their list of priorities - lower, it is interesting to note, than either pensions for the elderly or funding for the arts.
Here is a worrying point for mainstream politicians. We gave generationNEXT ten examples of what may reasonably (if crudely) be thought important differences between the two main parties (see table opposite). Which, we asked, did they think were the important differences? They could choose as many or as few as they liked, but not one of the supposed differences was chosen by more than half. More strikingly, the issue on which they saw the clearest difference - that one party would keep the pound but the other would not - was also, to them, one of the least important issues. Most of the traditional party dividing lines - helping the poor or the rich, spending or not spending on education and health, caring or not caring for the future of the planet - did not seem to register with the large majority of our sample. The suggestion that "one [party] will stop me doing what I like, the other won't" - which might be expected to attract supporters of the Tories' economic liberalism, as well as those of Labour's relatively libertarian stance on sexual behaviour - got less support than any other. Even the proposition that "one [party] will run the country well, the other won't" - surely central to Labour's election campaign - got support from only 33 per cent, though this was higher than for anything else except the simple statement that "there's little or no difference" between the parties.
Overall, the range of opinion is far more diverse than the options that the party system can offer. But it is not one of straightforward apathy. Despite their rejection of politics as offering meaningful choices, thousands of respondents reinforced its overall importance. Thirty-eight per cent had boycotted a company or product, 68 per cent had been involved in raising money for charity, and 32 per cent (a startlingly high proportion, although one must allow for exercises organised by school "citizenship" classes) in writing a letter to their MP or local councillor. But the most consistent conclusion is that the political system does not represent accurately or effectively the set of concerns which this generation brings to the table.
Over the next two months, we will be surveying our sample group regularly, tracking the performance of parties and politicians during the election campaign, and gauging in more detail the next generation's views on the issues which underpin mainstream politics.
Tom Bentley is the director of Demos