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17 November 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:54am

A manifesto for youth: how do we get young people interested in politics?

James Sweetland won the New Statesman/Intergenerational Foundation prize this year, for his essay addressing a simple but difficult question: how do we engage young people in politics? His prize-winning essay is printed below.

By James Sweetland

A Youth Manifesto is urgently required. It is obvious that young people are an increasingly marginal group within our electoral system; in the 2010 general election, 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted compared with 76 per cent of over-65s; while just 55 per cent of all 18-24 year olds had even registered to vote compared with 94 per cent of over-65s. These figures are evidence of a crisis, of a fundamental disconnect between young voters and their so-called representatives, and of a lack of interest in the political system.

The result of this apathy is obvious: politicians take no interest in young people’s priorities and thus are able to take up policy positions that actively harm their interests without fear of electoral reprisal. Furthermore, it is imperative that young people are politically involved now. The problem with distancing oneself from any system is that you lose the power to improve it. An uninterested and uninformed electorate will permit policies that play to prejudice and allow politicians to do what is salient rather than what is effective and required.

We are now at a critical juncture. The western nations are faced with issues such as climate change and gross income inequality which require entirely new approaches and new ideas. These are not issues that will lead to catastrophe for older generations, these are issues that will fundamentally affect our world and are affecting it now. If young people remain detached, remain uninterested, and wait another 20 years to demand policies that deal with these problems that will affect their futures, it will simply be too late.

Any engagement would have a seismic shift. If every young person turned out and spoiled their ballot in the next General Election, the myth would be shattered. Young people are not lazy. Politicians would realise: “They will turn out and vote provided we can offer them something that they want.” If we remain detached and allow the same old politics to preside, these unavoidable global issues will be even more difficult, perhaps impossible, to deal with in our futures.

Therefore the first step to young people mattering in politics is re-engagement. This is precisely why a Youth Manifesto is so important: it provides an outline of the opportunities that politics holds for young people if they engage with it. Undeniably, the least popular policy amongst young people is the introduction of £9,000 university tuition fees and the simple question for any young person who ends up reading this manifesto is this: if all 7,247,000 18-24 year olds in the UK turned out at the next election and voted, would any such punitive policy be instigated against young people again?

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Youth Manifesto Policies

1. Reform of secondary schools’ “Citizenship” curriculum

Currently, there are many areas where our education system fails adequately to prepare young people for adult life. While steps are gradually being taken to deal with this issue, as financial education is finally an element of the Citizenship curriculum in England, there are still too many areas which are inadequately covered. School must prepare children for adult life, and learning how to deal with budgeting/bills is an important part of this. This proposal would involve the introduction of a series of subjects into Citizenship which would be mandatory for all schools in recognition of the fact that these are life skills or areas of understanding that any parent would desire their children to possess. These subjects would include: legal rights, human rights, a basic understanding of NHS services, voting, financial education, global issues and an introduction to a range of religious beliefs and philosophies to promote tolerance.

2. Reform of the sexual-education programme in secondary schools

The UK has a dire record on sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies. Levels rose 5 per cent in 2011-2012 reaching 448,422 diagnosed STIs, with the highest rates in those under 25. On teenage pregnancies, we have one of the highest rates in western Europe despite a recent declineIt is clear therefore that the current sexual education system is insufficient. I would propose a system whereby schools must offer sex education to all secondary pupils from a professionally trained and external group of sexual education experts. They would visit schools and give talks explaining issues, ensuring high-quality sex education. The benefit of external staff is that it will reduce the embarrassment some pupils feel in discussing intimate issues with their teachers. I believe such a policy shift is the only way to deal with the concerning statistics above.

3. Ensure that all young offenders receive education and training

At the start of 2013, there were approximately 8,000 under-21s in prison in England and Waleswhile the Prison Reform Trust states that 18-24-year-olds account for a third of those sentenced to prison every year. Moreover, a survey of 15-18-year-olds in prison found that while all young women were being educated, only 79 per cent of men were and that 28 per cent of young men were employed in their prison while only 18 per cent of women were.

These figures are unequivocal. The prison system requires a level of improvement in education but I believe that it is vital for prisoners to have some form of employment. To provide this to these young people would allow them to become contributing members of society and give them the skills required to work, helping them to avoid a life of crime.

4. Mandatory voter registration in secondary schools and reduction in voting age to 16

I referenced the extraordinarily low turnout of young voters earlier, and the fact that only 55 per cent of 18-24-year-olds are even registered to vote. Voter registration is an important issue due to the fact that unlike the US, where Election Day Registration (EDR) is used, the UK requires voters to register before voting day. Mandatory voter registration would certainly increase the youth turnout rate, as it removes another barrier to engagement.

Reducing the voting age to 16 would send a signal to young people that they matter and is another important step towards engaging young people in the political system. This, coupled with my proposal for political education as part of Citizenship at school, would create a generation of people who are politically aware and educated about the importance and methods of politics.

5. Mandatory voting for all first-time voters

This is another policy that I believe would have a small but important effect on young people in politics. I believe that this would be particularly beneficial in the long term because it teaches people the fundamentals of voting: where their local polling booth is, for example, or the process of casting one’s vote. This is important because it acts to remove another barrier to voting. These are small barriers to apathy but the effect of policies which make voting incrementally easier is to make voting increasingly attractive for the electorate. I also believe that voting is habit-forming; voters who are aware of where and how to vote are far more likely to do so again. My contention is that incremental reform is an effective approach to dealing with apathy in young people.

6. Increase landfill tax and replace the climate change levy with a carbon tax

Landfill tax is currently at £80/tonne for standard rate and £2.50/tonne for lower rate. I believe that we should create different rates for large businesses, small businesses and local authorities as well as a general increase in all rates. On top of this, we should abolish the half-hearted climate change levy and replace it with a full carbon tax.

Young people should support this policy because it prevents costs rising exponentially; a US report suggested delaying action on climate change could lead to 40 per cent higher costs. Money raised by this policy must be spent on clean, renewable energy and must also be devoted to climate change education to ensure that the next generations are aware of how to combat global warming and its imminence in their lifetimes.

7. Abolish unpaid internships

Unpaid internships are a particularly egregious example of business exploiting young people. They are not just regressive, favouring those with well-off parents, but they actively harm job prospects for other people. Businesses are able to hire unpaid interns and then use them to do work they would otherwise have to pay normal workers for.

In fact, 75 per cent of interns are insufficiently compensated for their work and thus banning this practice is an important measure. It would prevent businesses creating another series of serious financial problems for young people to deal with before they can enter the job market. For many students, tuition fees combined with working for free while paying for rent (a particular concern as most internships are in London), utilities, food and transport can lead to them accruing significant debts at the start of their career. This is an immoral and indefensible practice and it must be abolished.

8. Introduce a nationwide network of school counsellors

While counsellors have become ubiquitous in UK universities, and indeed in Welsh secondary schools, English secondary schools do not have the same statutory requirements. Surveys suggest that around 61-85 per cent of secondary schools in England offer such services, and I believe that all secondary schools should have to do the same.

Counsellors are vital to young people, and from a political perspective this policy is very attractive as it deals with societal problems at source, it acts to prevent and to cure. In dealing with issues of alcohol, drugs, sexual violence, family issues, bullying, sexuality and myriad other issues faced by vulnerable young people, it can help deal with a variety of issues that are a blight on young people and wider society. For example, one in 12 young people in Britain today self harm and this figure rises to a shocking 56 per cent in gay young people. Having counsellors available would certainly help to decrease this figure.

9. Establish equal minimum wage rates for all ages

It is perhaps this issue that would make the biggest difference to young people across this country, as 60 per cent of 16-21-year-olds work in low-paying jobs compared to just 30 per cent of over 22-year olds. The increased cost of living for young people, exacerbated by rising public transport costs and the replacement of the £560m Educational Maintenance Allowance with the £180m 16-19 Bursary Fund means that young people are faced with huge costs that they simply cannot afford at the current low rates of pay given to under-21s. If this measure, as is often suggested, leads to lower youth employment, then businesses without youth employees should have a small charge levied on them and this money should be redistributed to businesses in the same sector which employ a larger number of young people.

 10. Scrap the marriage tax allowance to fund an extended student railcard scheme

The marriage tax allowance costs £700m a year and involves the transfer of £1,000 of one partner’s personal allowance to the other partner. This policy is a social, rather than economic statement, but it is flawed in that it benefits people who are more likely to be in a stable financial position. In my opinion, this money should be redistributed to extending the student railcard scheme; currently journeys during weekdays between 4:30 and 10am are subject to a minimum fare of £12. This expansion would not only signal the government’s commitment to education and training but would also be an effective way to deal with a genuinely important issue for young people across the country.


This is, naturally, a short manifesto and therefore does not encompass every youth issue that exists and requires urgent action. However, I believe that it offers a flavour of the kinds of policies that young people desire and would be able to extract from their politicians if they engaged with the political system.

James Sweetland is the winner of the New Statesman/Intergenerational Foundation essay prize. More details here.

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