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  1. Election 2024
9 April 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 7:54am

What would make young people get interested in politics?

Young people don’t join political parties because they offer real change. If they join at all, it’s because it’s a great joke to tell their friends.

By Rys Farthing and Alex Hudson

While all the headlines talk about “new politics” increasing youth engagement, especially for marginalised and disaffected young people, their voices have been – so far – curiously missing from this election campaign. And if you do seek them out, they tell an entirely different story.

Three decades of declining electoral participation, shrinking party memberships and increasing cynicism about the value of mainstream politics has led many thinkers to herald a crisis of democracy among the young, and call in to question the future legitimacy of the democratic political system.

Fewer than half of young people eligible to vote did so in 2010.

Much of the disquiet among the young, it’s often argued, is because they see so little opportunity for real change through the current political system. From academics to comedians, it’s become a sort of aphorism that the young don’t vote because they simply see no point in the political system anymore.

As Russell Brand bluntly put it: “Young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics. They see no difference between Cameron, Clegg, Boris, either of the Milibands or anyone else.”

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But that was two years ago now. Since then, there’s been a wave of excitement about newer political parties and their ability to reach out to “disaffected youth”. Maybe they can provide the new difference between Cameron, Clegg and Miliband that’s been so badly lacking for the young?

There’s even women in the new intake of leaders – Leanne Wood in Wales, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Natalie Bennett for the Greens. The latter wasn’t even born in the UK. It’s a brave new world.

And there are many arguments being made that things really are changing.

We’re endlessly reminded that the surge in Green Party membership is largest among the young, with the Young Greens group doubling its size in 2014 alone.

Among young people, the Greens were tied for second place with the Conservatives according to YouGov earlier this year. Twenty-two per cent of young people would vote Green. It’s possible the resurgence of the Green Party could be enticing younger voters.

And the numbers are, from a youth engagement point of view, equally exciting for Ukip. Ukippers – or Young Independence as they’re formally known – has around 3,500 members, just a shade under 10 per cent of the main party’s membership.

And the media hasn’t missed this. Young Ukippers, for example, have attracted a stream of coverage from unexpected left-leaning quarters like the Guardian right across to the Spectator.

“Two of the truisms of modern politics are that the working class are disenfranchised and that the young are uninterested,” the BBC’s Newsnight excitedly claimed after interviewing four young Ukippers. “Who’d have thought that for a growing minority of Britain’s youth it would be Ukip which provides a remedy for both?”

So are these newer parties reviving the democratic sphere for working class young people as the media and the polls are perhaps suggesting? Does the prospect of more pluralism in Westminster offer enough change to encourage young people to re-engage with politics?

We arranged focus groups with young people in four of the most disadvantaged parts of England to ask them exactly what they thought about this “new politics”.

We spoke to 24 young people, aged 15 to just turned 18-year-olds, to ask them what they think. All of them attended youth groups in either Moss Side, Newcastle, Tower Hamlets or Hackney.

Like adults, all young people are different so it’s rare that you can speak to more than a handful of young people from around England and achieve consensus. But this seemed to be one of the few issues that united the teenagers we spoke with, from young Muslim women from Tower Hamlets to white working class lads in the north.

They offer a very convincing, very sobering, explanation for the jump in party membership amongst the young. It isn’t, as stated in Green Party releases about youth engagement, a “testament to a sea-change going on in politics”.

There was absolutely no conceivable way that the newer political parties interested them enough, they said, to rethink their distrust of politicians or ignite a sense of optimism for politics either for them or their peers.

To begin with, few of them claimed to know much about newer political parties. As one young man from Moss Side bluntly put it: “All I know is Ukip are racist and the I’m guessing the Greens got something to do with keeping the world nice and stuff, like recycling.”

A young woman behind him giggled: “I don’t even know what politics means.”  It’s hard to be ignited with enthusiasm by political parties that you know nothing about.

These young people were the first to attend schools that had been encouraged to focus down on English, Maths and other English Baccalaureate subjects. Citizenship studies, while still part of the national curriculum package, isn’t a focus of the EBacc and these young people’s lack of formal education about politics shows.

What little they did know about these smaller parties didn’t seem to light their fire. In Newcastle, they gave me a great metaphor to help explain it: “Young people like to make characters out of politics, like to make goodies and baddies, and I think people see the Greens as like this eternal goodness, the innocent (loser, they later add), and then Ukip as this baddie, the villainous person with this moustache.”

But does having more characters make the story more interesting? Will it encourage them to vote when their time comes? “I don’t think so,” says one young woman.

“I think for the majority of young people they just think ‘oh well it’s a harder decision to make so I’m just not going to make it’. My friends just aren’t interested in it. They see it as a white man’s game.”

A curious critique, coming from one of the “whitest” parts of England.

The criticism of “white” politicians was often added to: politicians were white, male and always middle or upper class.

Because of this, they were too disconnected from their worlds to be engaging, no matter what political party they came from.

“The ironic thing is that these politicians tend to be under (from) the middle class, not the working class, and they say that they try to sympathise with the working class and be like ‘yeah I understand’ but the truth of it is that they don’t,” says a 17 year old woman from Hackney.

She elaborates: “Like for example, who’s that guy… Boris Johnson, he had like one night in this crappy B&B and he goes ‘oh, I had a rough night, I now I understand how working class feel’. Truth is, he’s just stayed one night in a crappy B&B place, you don’t understand your whole life being working class.”

And that was the issue: the young people didn’t know nor care about these new parties. Even if they knew a little bit about their left/right alignment, they still didn’t care. Every political party, no matter which colour or creed, were all disconnected decision-makers who didn’t understand young people’s actual lives, they thought.

Despite there being new and shiny political parties thrown into the mix, politics didn’t listen to, nor care about them, so why would they engage? Their problem was not a lack of faith in specific parties, but a lack of faith in the whole political system itself.

Another young woman from Tower Hamlets explained it beautifully: “Politicians, they’re only just one above us, but the truth is they make us think that we’re ten below them,” she said.

“No matter what we say, we climb those nine steps and we finally get the chance to say what we think, they’re going to be like ‘we’re going to do this anyway’.”

At a joint event organised by the left-leaning Fabian Society and the Tory think tank Bright Blue on poverty I recently witnessed this effect in action. A young woman, aged 15, had attended and talked eloquently about her experience at school. She didn’t feel that her views had been taken seriously at the conference, so she asked the Westminster-elite panel following her speech, quite bluntly: “Why aren’t you listening to us?”

The moderator’s verbatim answer: “I’d like to go back to a previous question, about the economy.”

With little teaching, even less voice and no vote until 18, representative democracy struggles to represent young people.

So why is there such a surge in membership for Young Independence and Young Greens? If all of this “new” politics is much of a muchness, then why are some young people flocking to these newer parties?

In Newcastle, the youngsters we speak to have first hand experience that helps them explain Ukip: “A lot of young people think Ukip, ha ha, like it’s jokey,” says one young woman, explaining that they’re the butt of many of their jokes in RE class.

“I met this guy (at my school) who was part of Ukip… and he saw it as a joke, he laughed about it and saw himself as this big controversy,” says another. “I think a lot of young people are like that out there, they’re just doing it for controversy.”

It’s currently £2 to become a member of Young Independence for under 22-year-olds.

In Hackney, a similar narrative emerges around the Greens: “I asked around at school and a few people said they’re voting Green,” says one young woman, aged 17.

“I think that’s the new trend for young people, oh ‘they’re so different let’s vote green, they’re not like Labour, they’re not like the conserveratives (sic) parties, they’re so cool, save the environment’…They’re trying to be different… It’s cool to vote Green.”

There’s a glimmer of hope in that. ‘It’s cool to vote Green?’ I ask. Could this be an actual meaningful engagement?

“Yeah kinda, right now,’ says another young woman. “At the same time we don’t really know that much about them.”

They go on to talk about beards being trendy among hipsters in Clapton, hardly a heartening comparison.

Are you more interested in politics because of newer parties? *silence*

“I don’t know” says a young man from Newcastle.

Have you been re-energised? “Nope” says a young woman from Moss Side.

So that’s what they had to say. Newer political parties were either a controversial joke for attention or ephemeral trend towards difference – hardly the revivification of the democratic sphere that many were hoping for.

It’s not, as Siobhan MacMahon, Young Greens co-chair, said “groups springing up across the country every week, campaigning on the issues that really matter to this generation but that are ignored by the mainstream parties”.

So if more political pluralism isn’t the remedy Newsnight claimed it could be, what’s needed to get these working class young people enthused about political parties? The young people we spoke to consistently provided three answers.

Firstly, despite the accusation of apathy being levelled at them, all of them expressed a desire to know more about politics. They said that with the reduced focus of citizenship within the curriculum, they knew little about politics and that was making it hard for them to get interested in the first place. As one young man, a year away from voting age put it: “I think we don’t know anything about it because we’re not taught it.”

Secondly, despite their so-called apathy, they all wanted to be able to vote: “Young people can’t vote, they say we have a voice, we don’t have a voice at the end of the day, we don’t have a choice, oh I want to vote for Ukip or Labour, we don’t have that opportunity, so why would we be interested?” says a young woman, aged 17.

Finally, and most importantly, they wanted something more radical than just “more of the same” at Westminster. They wanted a body politic that listened to them and where their experiences mattered.

They wanted a political system that reflected and connected to their complicated and adverse lives more: “Whoever goes into power next needs to focus on young people more and poverty more because it’s just the day to day things, like lights in a park that need to be added, to the communities just to make things easier,” said one young man from Moss Side.

If you want young people to be engaged, then engage them, listen to them and take what they have to say on board. If not, the status quo will stay the status quo and we’ll be left with 200 young people “handpicked” by the BBC to give voice to what an entire generation thinks.

As one young woman from Hackney put it: “They don’t make it any of our business, so why should we be interested?”

Until someone makes it young people’s business and gives them true voice rather than just a soundbyte and a photo opportunity, political party membership will be done – if the conversations with these young people are anything to go by – as a “joke”, to court “controversy” or to try and be “cool” amongst their peers.

That’s not new politics, that’s just playground politics. And we all know what Westminster thinks about that.

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