If young people become engaged in politics they can wield real power, argues Bradley Allsop. But what needs to change for this to happen?

You are, I’m sure, familiar with the myth that young people are apathetic. It is a lie perpetuated by politicians and a complicit media, a lie that seeks to cover up their own failings and ineptitudes and transfer the blame onto a marginalised and largely defenceless demographic—sound familiar? It’s the favourite trick of the Establishment and until now it’s been working pretty well for them.

I had the privilege of taking part in a panel discussion chaired by Sahaya James at the recent Green Party conference on engaging young people in politics. As we moved onto a Q & A session, one gentleman asked a question about polling stations being moved as far away from campuses as possible. In answering him I said bluntly what he was trying to say politely—the Establishment has been doing all it can to make damn sure young people aren’t voting come May.

They are terrified of a mass youth movement finding its voice again, and so it should be. Not only have they been made to bare the brunt of austerity during this Parliament, but whenever young people do try to mobilise they’re met with a hostile police force bearing tear gas and arrest warrants. Young people are far more likely to embrace alternatives and to see through the social and economic blinkers of their time, so it makes perfect sense that in an age of ‘no alternatives’, of a rigid and meaningless two-party system fixated on neoliberal dogma, they will be the ones least inspired by the meagre offerings on show in Westminster.

Research suggests that many who choose not to engage in the formal political system may engage in a myriad of informal ways such as boycotting products, signing e-petitions, and attending demonstrations and marches. Indeed, for many, not voting in itself is a highly political act. Young people, with their courage and imagination so often mistaken for naivety, are those most put off by a system that offers little scope for change, a system that offers them no hope, but this does not mean that they don’t care.

The Bite the Ballot rep on the panel pointed out that parties seem to be half-heartedly seeking some ‘silver bullet’ for engagement, a quick fix-all so typical of the neoliberal hegemony. However, the solution is bound to be more complex—the electorate aren’t cattle that can be herded one way or the other by one simple change—they are a mass of unique individuals with separate concerns and priorities and any ‘cure’ to disengagement must recognise this.

There are real practical things we can be doing right now to increase voter turn-out that require no drastic u-turns on policy. Same-day registration, online voting, and a ‘None of the above’ category on the ballot paper are simple, logical moves any government could make regardless of political persuasion that could have a real impact on voter turn-out, simply by merit of making voting easier. These ideas and more came out of an hour discussion amongst a small group of teenagers and twenty-somethings—why has the entire political system failed to grasp them?

It was also highlighted by the panel that we need to be going beyond registration and voting: we should be looking to engage young people in the actual issues that politics debates. The problem that this seeks to redress is not that young people don’t care—as already discussed they do. Rather, it is about giving them a chance to actually voice their opinion and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to feel competent enough to act in an archaic and elitist sphere. Schools, colleges and universities should be exploring exciting ways to encourage political debate and activism. My Students’ Union is exploring unique ideas such as a coconut shy with the leaders faces on them, bar-side polls on political issues, and holding local hustings on campus. Nothing this year has filled me with more happiness than seeing a room of students tear into our local Conservative MP.

Another question the panel was asked about was how to engage young people in politics when they come from a household that bears such hostility towards anything remotely ‘political’. The answer partly lies in not using the world, partly to trick people into meaningful discussions that would otherwise be shut down, but partly because the term is defunct. Everything is political, and we need an education system that reflects this. Instead of boring ‘PSHE’ lessons squeezed into the curriculum once a fortnight, we need an education that suffuses politics into everything we’re teaching, because it’s there already.

Doing all this will, I think, see genuine improvement in political engagement across all generations. However, do all this and we’ll still be left with a profoundly distrustful and generally disengaged electorate, with young people still being the least active at the ballot and still the forgotten generation. Strip away all the ways of registering and educating and we’re still left with the harsh reality that we’re simply failing to inspire young people.

We need a political system that has scope for real change, that has the ability to actually adapt to the profound challenges we are facing this century. We need politicians that serve, rather than betray us. We need transparency and more direct democracy injected into proceedings, where politics is exciting and localised, rather than boring and aloof.

Young people are profoundly powerful and it is precisely because they have been keeping away from the ballot for so long that they are. When politicians draw up battle plans for a general election, they no longer think about the young people in the area—we’re the unknown and unthought of factor that in many constituencies could sway the result.

Sharing the panel with such articulate and passionate panellists humbled me, and gave me hope for my generation. This is why the Establishment are so worried about us showing the first signs of awakening for decades they’ve pushed through policy after policy that makes our lives worse because they’ve counted on us not doing anything about it. Now that it looks like we might, Westminster looks set for a shake-up.

Bradley Allsop

About Bradley Allsop

Bradley is currently studying for his PhD in youth political engagement at the University of Lincoln and writes on democracy, political engagement and political psychology.