Jo Swinson MP
Jo Swinson is one of the youngest MPs in the House of Commons. Her article takes a fresh look at political participation, encouraging young people not just to be seduced by the glamour of popular political campaigns, but to recognise the importance of institutional politics.
Are young people more politically apathetic today than ever before?
Since the end of the Second World War, the widely-observed trend across Western democracies has been towards declining turnout at elections and among young people the problem is particularly pronounced. According to a MORI poll, just 37% of 18-24 year-olds voted in the 2005 general election, a fall of 2% on the 2001 figure. Political party memberships have declined very severely over the last thirty years.
But is this a true reflection of young people’s view of politics – that they simply aren’t interested?
The answer, as it happens, appears to be no. An Electoral Commission survey carried out in 2005 asked 1,000 young people for their feelings on a range of political issues. Among 16-20 year-olds, 81% said they felt strongly about issues such as crime and education. This compared with just 57% among 21-25 year-olds.
Far from declining interest, said the Commission, these results indicate that young people’s interest in current affairs is in fact growing. It is not difficult to find evidence of alternative forms of political participation among young people.
The Make Poverty History marches and the protests in the lead up to the war in Iraq saw colossal numbers of young people take to the streets to make their voices heard. With charity and pressure group memberships rising, young people are being driven more by individual issues and causes than by a desire to take part in the country’s political machine.
It should not be a surprise that young people are interested in politics, albeit in single issues more than institutional politics. They realise that the issues on which their leaders are taking decisions today, will affect them not only now, but also long into the future.
For example, with its misguided plans to introduce ID cards, the Government will strip away another layer of our civil liberties, at huge cost and for little security benefit. Which young person, particularly of ethnic minority background, doesn’t fear that they will be the victim of far more frequent spot-checks than the rest of the population? And the great long-term issue of climate change is one that the Government is clearly taking very seriously and young people have an acute awareness of the changes that they will face due to global warming. They recognise that action is needed today to prevent effects that may not fully come to light for several decades and that the government must do better to reconcile environmental issues with other policies, particularly on energy generation and transport.
But there are other issues being decided today that are less headline grabbing, though no less important. Sustainable community development, the future of the Post Office network, preservation of our green spaces – all issues that could change the face of our communities and way of life for young people in the future.
Of course it shouldn’t be expected of young people that they have views on every issue, or want to get involved in every debate. What is important is that they realise just how their silence at the ballot box directly affects them.
Politicians need votes to stay in a job. There’s nothing unseemly about that, as long as they are seeking a mandate to pursue what they genuinely believe is a positive, ‘right’ agenda. If young people don’t vote though, their views won’t be taken into account by the politicians when they consider what will get them re-elected. So by not voting, young people make the system work against them.
Some apathy, you can’t blame people for – and I include in this not just young people, for voting turnout is declining across the board, as mentioned above. The culture of spin in which we now live will be one of the overriding legacies of New Labour. Further, it looks set to be adopted wholesale by David Cameron. It is near-impossible to retain a positive view of politics through a relentless tide of government obfuscation, in which bad news is ‘buried’ and ministerial responsibility shirked in favour of blaming civil servants when things go wrong.
The tragedy is that, despite this ‘culture of spin’, the reality in Parliament does not accurately reflect our cynical modern view of politics. It is very interesting how often people say, “all politicians are self-serving and untrustworthy – except my MP, he/she is ok”. Having been working in the House of Commons for over two years now, I can say sincerely that there is no shortage of passionate, hard-working people ready to stand up for their constituents and for policies they believe in.
So, young people aren’t voting; they do care about political issues, but are turned off by the way modern politics is practised, and politicians are ready to stand up for their constituents, but are struggling against apathy and a bad image.
From politicians addressing this problem, changes are needed. Not only through greater openness and transparency to cut through the spin culture that is so off-putting, but through a serious attempt to listen more to young people – not by telling them to vote by text, but genuinely consulting them on their views of policies to be implemented.
From young people, a little more responsibility is needed. To a large extent, the electorate is charged with looking after the health of a political system, through voting, scrutiny of government and other forms of participation. Without a politically active young population, our politics will continue to drift away from accountable, honourable and responsible government, towards spin, sleaze and atrophy.
So in a word, vote. Or failing that, stand for Parliament, and make the changes you would like to see, yourself.