Is anybody listening?

Young people feel disconnected from politics and the policy that affects their lives. What can be do

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

"Is anybody listening?" was the question posed at the New Statesman's event yesterday morning, and hopes for an answer were high. At 8.30 in the morning Oxford Street's Starbucks was unusually crowded with young people, all eager to make their voices heard and to hear too what the assembled panel had to say about youth engagement with politics.

Bonnie Greer called the crowd to order, and introduced her fellow panellists Ginny Lunn and Peter Nzekwu from the Prince's Trust, the new Labour MP Luciana Berger, the singer Mz Bratt and Andrew Stunell, Lib Dem MP and minister for community cohesion, race equality, building regulations, housing, regeneration and the big society in the new coalition government. As Bonnie listed all his responsibilities, Stunell shook his head in apparent disbelief, and said: "Just call me the minister for the 'big society'."

But, as Bonnie pointed out, embarrassing titles aside, this was a rare opportunity for those in the audience to make their views known to "people who can make things happen".

The opening statements were strong and decisive, with phrases like "not enough is done" and "we want to know how it will work for you". Luciana Berger particularly emphasised the importance for young people of knowing who their councillors and MPs are, because they can provide representation on difficulties such as Jobseeker's Allowance being withheld.

The questions from the audience ranged widely, from a vehement indictment of the negative portrayal of young people in the media to how to set up a business while trying to support a family. Topics like how to keep young people safe and what the proposed National Citizenship Service will involve were thrown in.

The panellists tried their best to address the issues raised, but found it very hard to speak in specific terms. The answers were dominated by vague uses of the future tense and presenting several options rather than pinning down a particular idea. Inertia is the natural state of government, but the trouble with this particular area of policy is that, during the two years it takes to implement an initiative, a 15-year-old keen to stay in education becomes an unemployed, disaffected 17-year-old. For teenagers, time races by; for government, it barely moves at all.

As the discussion continued and more and more hands went up all over the room, it became clear that these young people would not be dissuaded from their goals, and if the government was unable to act on their information, they would get what they wanted in other ways. As Mz Bratt pointed out, "We have Twitter, Facebook, our websites to get our stuff out there. We don't need the media." And Peter Nzekwu added: "We've got strength in numbers."

The young people in the audience, many of whom are volunteers in their communities and ambassadors for the Prince's Trust, were certainly vocal about their opinions and needs. And the panel, including the two MPs present, was keen to listen and respond as best it could.

So, perhaps the answer to the question "Is anybody listening?" is positive: yes, people are listening, but solving problems isn't quite as straightforward as having a successful conversation.

Early on in the discussion, Bonnie Greer spoke of having heard the points made by the panel "over and over again" and of the "gap between aspiration and reality". Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of panellists and audience, that gap seems to be as wide as ever.

For details of further "Coffee House" debates (the programme of public debates organised by the New Statesman and Starbucks) please visit our Events page.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Free trial CSS