Expectedly, 2015 began with the launch of the election campaign, with MPs from all of the major parties taking to the airwaves this week to make their case for your vote. In amongst all the bluster came an interesting (if not novel) nugget from Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who argued that politicians from all parties are neglecting young people, and focusing excessively on winning the ‘silver vote.’ He’s right, but why is that the case?
Firstly, it’s no secret that older people are more likely to vote, and be registered to vote. At the last election, turnout amongst 18-24s was just 44%, compared to 76% amongst those aged 65+. Whether low participation amongst young people is a cause or a result of neglect from politicians, political parties are always going to target those most likely to vote. Given that research by the Charities Aid Foundation has found that almost 70% of 18-24 year-olds think that people should vote, it would seem to be a lack of inspiration as opposed to disinterest that is hampering turnout. Not being registered to vote also means that political candidates do not know who or where you are and as a result do not lobby you – so young people are already on a back foot.
Secondly, young people are presumed to be less invested in society than older generations. Stereotypes perpetuated by society persist, and there is an assumption that young people don’t care – we know that is not true; look at the Scottish independence referendum where 68% of 16-24 year olds voted. And so a vicious circle is created whereby politicians continue to neglect young voters and enacting policies that are disproportionately beneficial to older voters, as has been this case in this Parliament; 50% of the welfare bill is spent on pensions – no single party has dared mentioning looking at that as an area to cut. This all forms part of the debate around Westminster centred politics.
Finally, party affiliation is falling, with voters – particularly younger voters – more likely to align themselves with a particular cause or organisation than a political party. The allocation of young people’s resources, enthusiasm, and support follows their alignment, and sees traditional parties suffer from declining engagement as a result.
The reality is that the political landscape has changed, and young people view the political process in a distinctly different way to older voters (although this disparity is beginning to fizzle out). Whereas traditionally the electorate has seen political parties as the best agent for change, young people (and their older peers are starting to follow this thinking) are much more likely to see charities and social enterprises as forces for social good, and choose to channel their enthusiasm and resources into social politics through this route instead.
Teachers that engage with young people on a daily basis see that their attitudes are very different to those depicted above. Two-thirds of teachers believe that the current generation of young people is more concerned with social issues than those in the past, refuting theories of perpetual disengagement amongst young people.
The challenge for political parties is to turn interest in social issues into voting. That means getting young people on the electoral register, considering new ways of voting including through digital means, and providing greater education about the role of politics in society.
But cultural change for greater participation must not be limited to involvement in politics. To reach those young people who are genuinely disengaged we need to let them learn about the role organisations play in their community – civic society – as well as giving them the skills they need to shape their future.
To this end, education and programmes in schools should raise awareness of social politics in the UK. Work experience programmes should give young people the chance to gain experience at charities. Classroom-focused learning should highlight the rise of social media and campaigning organisations in British politics, alongside traditional mediums such as parties, lobbying and the media. A commitment to teaching about civic engagement must extend beyond the ballot box.
We also need more young leaders in society. Many young people have so much to offer, but are not given opportunities because of misconceptions directly attributable to their age. Charities – organisations that young people are keen to support – can lead the way and empower young people by ensuring that programmes are put into place to train and empower the next generation of charity staff and trustees. I’ve had the opportunity to develop so much since beginning as a young trustee, and more young people should be given the chance to benefit in this way.
Both of these ideas were recommended by the cross-party Growing Giving Parliamentary Inquiry, chaired by former Home Secretary David Blunkett and led by the Charities Aid Foundation. The Inquiry acknowledged the importance of early engagement and education to develop charitable giving as a habit, lessons that can easily be transferred to the field of politics and wider civic society.
I was proud to join other young people in shaping the recommendations of the Inquiry, and hope that political parties will consider its recommendations as they write their manifestos. The election in May is an opportunity for parties to change the way that they do business, reach out to young people, and establish a society in which younger members lead the way in civic engagement and social action. I hope that they grasp it.
Leon Ward is a trustee of international children’s charity Plan UK and sexual health charity Brook. He is an Ambassador for Young Charity Trustees, a blogger for Civil Society and the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, an Associate Expert (on third sector governance) at The Key for School Governors and a governance advice columnist for the Big Give. He has over 8 years experience in the charity sector.
Leon was recently elected the UK Young Ambassador to the Commonwealth and is a Consultant at Davidson and Partners. He tweets: @Leonjward