Ukip’s Young Independence, the party’s youth wing, launched its annual conference today in Birmingham. The number of under 30s attending is modest at 140, but it is the party’s largest youth summit so far.
It marks a surge in interest in the party from young voters in the past eight months. Last week Ukip announced that membership of its youth wing in the eastern region has increased 100 per cent since the beginning of this year.
The youth wing has experienced an explosion in growth nationally too, with membership up 40 per cent since March this year to 2,600 members at present. Ukip hopes to hit a target of 3,500 young members by next August.
While membership is increasing rapidly, Ukip still has some way to go to rival the Conservatives. The Tories claim that Conservative Future, their youth wing for Under 30s, has 15,000 members and is the largest youth political organisation in the UK.
Comparisons with the other parties are difficult to draw. Labour refuses to disclose the breakdown of membership of its youth organisations, which include a group for 14 to 20 year olds, and another for 20 to 26 year olds. Meanwhile the official website for Young Labour, which is linked to on the party’s main website, comes up with an error message at present. The Lib Dems do not publish their figures either.
The decline in partipation of young citizens in British politics is reaching constitutional crisispoint. The UK now has the worst record in Western Europe for the gap between youth voter turnout and overall turnout.
Over recent decades, voter turnout among 18 to 24 year olds have fallen sharply to under 50 per cent in UK general elections. It is predicted that the Coalition’s individual voter registration reforms will damage youth participation at the ballot boxes next May even further.
So are political party youth wings a good bet for galvanising young people and encouraging them to take an interest and vote? Tim Stanley, a journalist and historian with personal experience of intense involvement in youth politics, is wary about people getting deeply involved in politics too young.
A former chair of the Cambridge University Labour Club, who joined the Labour party at age 15, he regrets his former earnest involvement with politics.
Debating the matter with former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Stanley lamented failing to “sleep around” and enjoy his adolescence and early twenties.
He said: “If you’re young, you’re better off spending your time on something more useless.” He added that young people committed to politics “tend to be immature, tend to be driven towards the fringes, they tend to see life as very straightforward and easy and they’ve got all the answers. You quickly discover you haven’t.”
He added: “You wake up one day and think: what have I done with the last few years of my life.”
Widdecombe rejected his pessimism. “There’s nothing wrong at all with young people thinking on serious matters, even if they’re going to reject what they think in later years, getting involved in local politics and thinking about how the country is run.”
She added: “If you don’t get engaged, if you’re not interested when you’re younger, when exactly is that interest going to come?”
Jack Duffin, the 22-year-old chairman of Ukip’s Young Independence, staunchly defends the importance of having young voices in politics.
He told me today that he is firmly on Widdecombe’s side in this debate. “Youth politics are fantastic,” he said. “I can’t wait 20 years for Labour or Tory governments to destroy my future even more. Our generation will have to live with the mess these governments are making.”