|Posted on November 11, 2013 at 3:00 PM|
Written by Chris Ptaszynski-Neophytou
When I mention political issues among a largely apathetic, politically out of touch young audience, I usually hear groans of frustration that politics is being discussed. The audience will stop listening and get down to texting. About three months ago, during my work experience at Lloyds Banking Group, I commented on how one person looked like Alex Salmond. My Line Manager looked at me and said, 'Who's Alex Salmond?' I was in utter disbelief and I am sure you would be too.
I can assure you that the ancient Athenians would be totally ashamed, since they were constantly aware of political matters, with politics at the centre of their culture, and all boys were exposed to the current affairs of Athens. Politics was discussed at symposiums, in the agora and watched at the theatre; all made possible because Athenian men were allowed the freedom of speech to criticise the government.
So the question you may be asking is: 'Why does it matter that young people lack political awareness and fail to turnout?' It matters simply because we need the next generation of voters to be just as, or more, politically aware and active as the previous one. If we stand idle, then the younger generation will develop a habit of not voting, not identifying the importance of voting, what each party stands for and how they want to be governed. Try and imagine a situation where adults in their 30s and 50s do not have a clue what each party stands for, who the Prime Minister is and do not care how they are governed. It would be unthinkable, undesirable and immoral.
I believe that we should be voting and making our opinions heard at every opportunity for three reasons. Firstly, we pay for the government. The MPs who sit in Parliament work for us and so we need to keep challenging them so we can get better value for our money! Secondly, people throughout history have died to give us the vote and so we must exercise our liberty to appoint, remove and criticise a government. Thirdly, there are billions of people throughout the world who do not have the luxury of the freedom to vote. Billions live in societies which deny people the basic freedom to vote and the freedom of speech to express opinion. It is for these reasons that I believe young apathetic voters need to be taught the basic workings of our political system, and to fully appreciate the wonderful gift of voting and expressing opinion.
By now you may be wondering, who is the culprit for this disgraceful decline in political awareness and turnout? The answer is the media and politicians. Our society and the attitudes within it have changed, especially with regards to politics among young voters. With the rise of social media and media generally being more accessible and transparent, young people, who may be first time voters, have more information about the government than ever before. This has influenced young people into thinking that politicians can never be trusted, they all are out of touch and they do not serve the public's interest. Why should young people vote if all they hear is negative things about government policy failure, rising taxes, rising tuition fees and rising fuel prices. A vote is not just crossing 'x' on the ballot paper, it is an investment of trust for a candidate and their party to serve your interests and a voter expects a return on that trust. But if, for example, Nick Clegg surrenders his popular policy of not raising tuition, to form the coalition, which won over young voters and saw his share of the vote rise to 23%, then why should any young voter continue to trust him? This has lost the Lib Dems thousands of votes overnight.
The government is also to blame, since the IPPR (the Institute for Public Policy Research) argues that young people, who have been hit hardest by the spending cuts, are less likely to vote simply because their trust and living standards has been eroded by the government. From its research, the think tank said that in the recent 2013 local elections, an estimated 32% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted, compared with 72% of those aged over 65. 'It also estimated that turnout for under-35s earning less than £10,000 a year was just 34%, whereas turnout for over-55s with an income of at least £40,000 a year was 79%.'
I agree with the IPPR's view that young people should be required to turn out at their first election because as Guy Lodge, an associate director at the IPPR, said: ' "Young people who don't vote today are less likely than previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they get older, which is why first time compulsory voting is so important". The government therefore needs to make it compulsory for young voters to vote in their first eligible election to get them into the routine of going to the polling station to cast their vote. This should be achieved either by imposing a small fine or by offering a "none of the above" option for the undecided voter. Perhaps most importantly, getting young people to vote would "make politicians target first-time voters like never before and give young voters the potential for far greater political power", as suggested by Sarah Birch, a Politics professor from the University of Glasgow.
I strongly believe that to get the young people of Britain voting again we need to educate them, either at schools, universities or home, as to how the political system works as well as which parties are involved and what each party stands for. I disagree with Ed 'Wallace' Miliband's policy of lowering the voting age because 16 -17 year olds would be just as apathetic as 18-20 year old and even worse at participating in elections.
I hope that in the near future the political establishment wakes up to the statistics of voter apathy among the young and does something about it. If they do not save the younger voter, then democratic politics will not have a foreseeable future; which we all hope will never happen.
Image © Stefan Bridle, original student work.