Since the general election was called, there has been an upturn in voter registration amongst the under 25s. Many young people, however, have still not registered and they are considered less likely to vote than older people. But this by no means tells the whole story. Young people are starting to seek new, bolder ways of engaging with and influencing politics, and they should not be underestimated, say Laura Pottinger and Sarah Marie Hall.
- Young voters feel excluded from political decisions and are put off by the style of modern political leadership.
- Young people want to be better educated about politics and at a younger age.
- They are just as committed and enthusiastic about issues and causes as they have ever been.
- They do not see established political parties as the vehicles for achieving their goals and are exploring new ways for political engagement that are bold, ethical and hopeful.
It was widely reported that many young people failed to vote in the EU referendum and there is concern that a similar pattern could follow in the forthcoming general election, continuing the downward trend we have seen in recent times. For instance, at the last election in 2015, turnout among 18-24 year-olds was just 43%, compared to 63% at the 1992 Election.
Our work, however, with youth leadership and social change charity RECLAIM, and specifically with their Team Future movement, challenges the idea that young people feel apathetic towards politics.
What is certainly true is that young voters feel excluded from decisions made on their behalf, and are put off by the aggressive language and style of modern political leadership. They tell us they feel locked out of the established political process and that they get very little citizenship or political education at school.
They argue that no one is trying help them understand or think critically about politics, and that their views are only valued once they are old enough to put a cross in a box.
However what young people also tell us is that they want to be included, listened to and educated about politics at a much earlier age.
Although they would welcome the opportunity to vote in the General Election, they don’t feel they have the political literacy to decide which way to vote. They argue that political education needs to start much earlier at school.
At the moment, of course, they cannot make that cross until they are 18, although there is a growing campaign to see the voting age reduced to 16 (as it was in the Scottish referendum of 2014). This would certainly be one way for politicians to re-engage with young people.
The responses we’ve heard from young people echo research elsewhere which has suggested that young people are just as committed and enthusiastic about issues and causes as they have ever been. But the point is that they do not see established political parties as the vehicles for achieving their goals. Many of those who are old enough to vote regard it as a waste of time because they don’t feel it changes anything.
Bold, ethical, hopeful
Team Future was initiated by two 16 year-old RECLAIM members on the day the result of the EU referendum was announced. As a youth-led movement, Team Future calls for a different way of doing politics, one that is bold, ethical and hopeful. It now has a slogan, a popular hashtag, and boasts a growing fan base with the likes of Owen Jones, Ben & Jerry’s and You Tube. The group has three key aims: to raise young people’s interest in politics and opportunities to contribute in political society; to tackle assumptions about who is and isn’t interested in politics; and to ensure a wider range of voices – particularly those from young, working class people – are listened to and catered for.
In October last year we started following the work of RECLAIM’s young people in their quest for voice, equality and education around political decisions that affect their future, and their present. With the ongoing Brexit negotiations, the coming General Election, and the most recent Greater Manchester Mayoral election, big changes are afoot. For Team Future, this presents an opportunity to rethink how we do politics, whether in our communities, across the region or nationally, and who we see as having power and potential in this arena.
Engaging and listening
To reflect the values of this campaign, and RECLAIM as an organisation, we had to think carefully about what our own project should look like in practice. Rather than researching on, about or for Team Future, we have been clear from the outset that we are working alongside them. In practice, this means engaging and conversing about issues that impact on them, listening before asking, and treating young people as valued colleagues, not research subjects.
One example is a workshop we held recently, where young people voluntarily enrolled in the writing of an academic paper, with an active voice as co-authors rather than a passive voice as ‘data’. This in many way sits at odds with some of the political events we’ve been witness to within our project so far – of meetings held in gated venues, at times of the day when young people are at school, or engagement orchestrated around the traditional ‘question and answer’ format which does not allow for in-depth and meaningful discussions.
We look forward to continuing to work with RECLAIM and cannot even begin to speculate what these young people will achieve.
What we do know, however, is that they should not be underestimated.