Stephen Bush (chair), editor of The Staggers
Ollie Middleton, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Bath
Darren Hughes, deputy director of The Electoral Reform Society
Frances Scott, founder of the 50:50 Campaign
Young people aren’t voting. It’s a problem that has been acknowledged by everyone from Russell Brand to conservative commentators. Polling conducted by Ipsos Mori after the 2010 election found that less than half (44 per cent) of 18-24 year olds voted (compared to more than 73 per cent of over 55s).
What’s going on? Many blame disillusion with the political system, one that young people see as littered with hollow promises, infighting and stagnation. Yet while this caricature of the “apathetic” voter may reflect what we see at the polls, that doesn’t mean young people don’t care about politics. Turn to Twitter or Facebook, for instance, and you’ll find debates aplenty, often young-person led. Research from Nottingham Trent University found that nearly two thirds of 18-year olds claim an interest in politics, yet say they are “turned off” by politics and political parties.
The role that social media should play in re-engaging young people and getting them to the polls this May was the topic of a recent New Statesman debate, hosted in partnership with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). The debate marked the launch of ElectUK, a new app from TCS that allow users to track, analyse and visualise Twitter conversations about the upcoming election.
The Staggers’ editor Stephen Bush, who chaired the debate, began be reminding us that this was the first election for the “digital natives.” “Today’s government is younger than Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “The generation voting for the first time has grown up with the internet in their homes, in their schools. So how can parties engage with them?”
Keep it real
The question is without a simple answer. But with more than a third of young people saying social media could influence their vote, politicians are giving it their best shot. Well more than half of MPs are now on Twitter (409 out of 650) and the Conservative party is reportedly spending £100,000 a month on Facebook alone. Labour, meanwhile, has invested in a digital campaign driven by Obama’s former election strategists.
With over four million election-related tweets already analysed by the ElectUK app, it’s clear that social has the potential to play a major role in engaging young voters. But simply showing up to the party isn’t enough, warned Darren Hughes, deputy director of the Electoral Reform Society. If politicians treat social media as little more than a mouthpiece for politics-as-usual, they’ll lose their listeners. “Simply packaging up the currently way politics is done into 140 characters will fail,” he said. “The social media generation is looking for authenticity. If politicians don’t demonstrate an interest in a range of specific issues, then they will fall flat.”
Apathy and access
Panelists agreed that young people are more politically engaged than the picture painted by statistics. “I dispute the term apathy,” said Ollie Middleton, Labour’s candidate for Bath who would, at 19, be the youngest MP ever if elected. “I don’t think the majority of young people are apathetic about politics, in the broadest sense of the world.” The problem, for Middleton, is the obtuseness of the political system.
“It’s about making politics accessible,” he said. “Young people have become deeply disillusioned with the way in which we do politics, with elements of the system that are broken. The job of politicians is to ensure that young people do see politics as a vehicle for change once again.”
Hughes said there isn’t political disengagement among young people, so much as a shift from the party politics of older generations to issues-driven voting. “Only 13 per cent of young people have a sense of partisanship,” he explained. “They are interested in issues, but they don’t look for the solutions in a particular party. They will protest and petition, online and offline, to make their point.”
But what about votes?
Yet the question remained, if young people do care about political issues, why aren’t they voting? Frances Scott, founder of the 50:50 Campaign which advocates for gender parity in parliament, said that “a lot of activity on social media doesn’t necessary translate into action”.
“Andy Murray’s ‘Let’s do this‘ tweet was re-tweeted 18,846 times, but the Yes Campaign still didn’t win,” she said in reference to the Scottish referendum. She said that online petitioning, despite being an “old fashioned” way of laying on political pressure, is still an effective social weapon. “I was inspired by the No More Page 3 campaign and the significant numbers of signatures it generated. Social media can have a lot of power in that way.”
A question came from the audience – does social media really spur change? Or does it just make it easier just to “click ‘like'” but not actually vote?
“Social media is a powerful tool,” said Middleton, “we’ve seen government topple during the Arab Spring as a result of it. But if you aren’t addressing the underlying problems of disillusionment and disengagement, then social media is only relevant to a point. “
Hughes agreed that the hardest task is “motivating people to vote”, and that this will require “changing our politics to make it more real and more relevant”. The evidence shows that social media is a chance for politicians to do just that – to connect with the issues that young people care about. But they must do so with authenticity. For those that can’t, it will be a major opportunity missed.
Designed, built and delivered by Tata Consultancy Services, ElectUK turns your smartphone into an advanced social media analytics tool, giving you the ability to identify and share online trends around the upcoming election.
The app is free to download and is available on both iOS and Android devices. Just search for ‘ElectUK’ in the Apple Appstore or Google Play Store.