Friday night in Glasgow, and the city’s cavalcade of kebabs, Bacardi Breezer abuse and vomit is in full swing. In the city centre, a girl swathed in a sash that cheerfully screams “Happy 18th!” is having a tearful fight with her friend, who is slumped insensibly on the steps of the Abbey National. Elsewhere, in the ladies’ toilet at the underground rock bar Nice ‘n’ Sleazy’s, there appears to be a serious diplomatic crisis. “Oh God . . . I called her a slut, but it was supposed to be a joke,” slurs a sloshed student, sitting on the floor of one of the cubicles. “She’s being really weird . . . When we were in the pub earlier she said I looked at her wrong.”
You can almost hear the politicians despairing. With binge drinking and voter apathy at all-time highs among young women, the election does not exactly appear to be of immediate concern to most of those aged between 18 and 25. “Er . . . what election?” deadpans Miriam Scanlon, a 25-year-old careers adviser, clutching a pint of cider. “Who would I vote for? Hmm. Who is there again?”
Do not be fooled. These girls might come across as ill-informed and apolitical, but there is also a genuinely political struggle going on, fuelled by uncertainty and intense feelings of disillusionment. In the Brunswick Cellars, a cavernous basement bar lit by a fish tank, Linsey Saunders explains how her feelings about the war on terror have caused her to switch off – literally. “I only just heard that the government had lost women’s votes and is trying to target them,” says the 23-year-old art student. “Since the war, I haven’t really been paying attention. I don’t even own a TV or radio any more. There’s always something on Iraq.” Despite turning her back on politics, however, Linsey says that she will be participating in the forthcoming election. “To be honest, I will probably vote Labour, but I’m not convinced. I’ve lost confidence in them, but I wouldn’t want to vote Conservative.”
This loss of confidence seems largely due to Iraq, and it is hard to find anyone who approves of the ongoing conflict. But it is equally hard to judge how these anti-war feelings will affect the election result. Linsey defends Tony Blair, calling him “an essentially truthful man who had to lie”. And in Glasgow, a city whose roots famously sprout from socialist principles, loyalty to the left is still strong. At Bunker, a white-walled bar up the road, Louise Rowan, a 22-year-old waitress, takes time out from drinking lurid blue shots with friends to make a tentative step into the political arena. “There was no need for the war. But I’ll vote Labour. My whole family has always voted for them.”
Yet, for some girls, Iraq was the final straw, leading them to consider other parties. Back at Nice ‘n’ Sleazy’s, Miriam feels that her options are limited, and labels Tories and Labour as “the same thing” and the Liberal Democrats as a party that “doesn’t stand a chance”. “I’m disillusioned with Labour and disgusted with Iraq and the reaction after 9/11,” she says. “I will vote, probably for the Green Party. In terms of what I believe in, the most important thing is the environment.”
Concern about the environment is what has swayed Anna, who has just turned 18. “I’m voting for the Green Party – I used to do work for Greenpeace,” she says, grinning proudly and revealing a gleaming set of braces. Her friend Pauline, who is also 18, is not so sure, and struggles to remember who the candidates are. “Give me the options again?” she asks. Labour? Liberal Democrats? Scottish National Party? The Scottish Socialist Party? “Yes, the Scottish Socialists!” she shrieks. “They’re not in it for themselves like most politicians. Our country is one of the worst in the world for the differences between rich and poor.”
Although they are hardly in danger of being asked to appear on Question Time, none of these Glasgow girls about town is in any doubt that she will go to the polls. In fact, despite their lack of political savvy, Anna and Pauline are surprisingly aware of their historical burden of responsibility as female voters. Having just been to see the third-wave feminist band Le Tigre, Anna seems raring to go. “I will definitely be voting: 100 per cent.” “We’ve got to,” chips in Pauline, drinking a vodka and Irn-Bru. “What about the suffragettes?”
It is a point that Ellie, 25, a former philosophy student and call-centre worker, strongly echoes. “People last century chained themselves to railings and killed themselves so that I would have the chance to vote,” she says firmly, nursing a pint. “My friends are feminists and I’m a feminist, so we’ll be there.” Apathy indeed.