News Analysis: Re-engaging the younger voters

With the general election only three weeks away, one issue all parties agree on is the need to counter young people's disinterest in politics. Sarah Robertson examines an array of efforts to get the youth vote out.

Voter turnout has plummeted since the Second World War and the proportion of young people voting has taken a particularly hard knock since the 1992 general election.

General elections in the 1950s drew in turnouts of 80 per cent plus, and every election up until 2001 saw percentages in the 70s. But the last time Britain went to the polls, just 59 per cent voted. Dragging this figure down were 18 to 24-year-olds, just 39 per cent of whom bothered to exercise their democratic right. Twenty-five to 34-year-olds fared little better (46 per cent).

Most alarming is MORI's finding that just 27 per cent of young people say they are absolutely certain to vote on 5 May, compared with 72 per cent of over-55s.

This makes for grim reading for those committed to the idea of a thriving democracy. But as National Union of Students research and information manager Lindsey Fidler-Baker points out: 'This election will be much closer than previous ones, which means that for the first time, politicians have realised the importance of young people's votes. Young people's experiences can also sway how their parents vote.'

But how did young people become so disengaged from the political system and why does it matter so much?

Traditionally, people's party of choice depended largely on social class, while younger people often looked to their parents for how to cast their vote. But voting patterns have become less predictable and the decision is more complicated and personal, says Electoral Commission campaign manager Becky Lloyd.

'There has been a gradual erosion of respect for authority - look at the way we perceive our Royal Family. There are serious problems with how little people trust politicians,' she adds.

The Electoral Commission suggested in a study that youngsters are far from apathetic, with 81 per cent of 18 to 20-year-olds feeling passionate about the things that affect them day-to-day.

Single-issue politics

UK Youth Parliament co-chairman Ashley Sweetland says: 'Thousands of young people took to the street about the Iraq war and top-up fees. They are as enthusiastic about issues as they always have been.'

But they lack the ability to link these things with the democratic process.

Radio One Newsbeat editor Rod McKenzie says: 'Young people are interested in single-issue politics such as the Iraq war or fox hunting but they cannot link these current affairs with the political system as their parents did.'

Once they make the connection between issues and politics, they start taking an interest, so it is a question of trying to 'bridge the gap', says Lloyd.

The political system is perceived as antiquated, and young people cannot believe that they cannot vote by text or email, says Lloyd: 'The voting system is not moving with society and we want to modernise it.' The commission plans to review the voting age within five years once 'citizenship lessons (which started in 2002) have had a chance to kick in'.

Getting young people to engage with the political system is a major headache for politicians and community leaders. Local Government Association local democracy campaign manager Jackie Robertson says: 'We need to build a sense of community for young people. To help this happen we are encouraging politicians and young people to talk to each other.'

CURRENT CAMPAIGN

BRITISH YOUTH COUNCIL

The national youth council for people aged under 26 in the UK

- The BYC this week launched its general election campaign, 'X-appeal', to promote youth issues to parliamentarians. It includes an online survey for young people to register views on subjects that matter to them. It has asked the main party leaders to write a statement for its site and is challenging them to increase the youth vote from its predicted 27 per cent. It is sending press packs on the voting process to local youth groups.

- Part of the Vote 16 coalition which is campaigning to lower the voting age at London polling stations on election day with a number of stunts.

ELECTORAL COMMISSION

Set up by parliament in 2000 with the aim of increasing confidence in the democratic process

- Still trialling 'Do politics' - a two-year outreach programme launched in summer 2003, featuring workshops. Commission staff talk to groups of 16 to 20-year-olds at organisations such as The Prince's Trust, and secondary schools. It targets children 'outside the higher education system' that do not have access to citizenship lessons.

- Also training youth workers to go out and manage workshops.

- Running an ad campaign across TV, radio and press using the slogan 'If you don't do politics, you don't do much'.

LOCAL GOVT ASSOCIATION

Represents the local authorities of England and Wales

- Teamed up with the Big Issue and the YMCA to manage its 'Ideas into Action' campaign, targeting 'harder to reach' young people, who are not in education or in care. The campaign features a touring play on the democratic process by the Solent People's Theatre at schools nationwide.

- Runs Local Democracy Week every October. The LGA asks councils to back the drive to encourage youngsters to take an interest in current affairs. It involves a series of events including political speed dating, where secondary school kids and councillors meet.

THE NUS

The National Union of Students represents more than five million in further and higher education

- The NUS has launched a 'Get the vote out' manifesto to drive the student vote, targeting young people and politicians through the media and lobbying. It will target national and local press as well as student media, including university publications. The campaign is a first for the NUS, which aims to alter the perception that the union exists only to fight fees.

- Promoting the date of the election and detailing how to vote by sending Electoral Commission material out to its 720 member unions.

THE UK YOUTH PARLIAMENT

Created in 1999 to raise youth

interest in the political process

- The Youth Parliament is putting forward a young people's manifesto and encouraging more of the young to be politically active in a campaign that launched in January. Redhead PR is targeting local and national broadsheets, the youth press and broadcast media. It is also putting 30 of its key members forward for broadcast speaking appearances in current affairs programmes.

- Has campaigned to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 since being formed five years ago to counter voting apathy and give young people more rights.

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