One of the perpetual pledges of politicians is that of “engaging with young people”. It is undoubtedly a problem; shameful voter turnout amongst my own demographic fundamentally questions the value of our representative democracy. I suspect that most people my age can name more Big Brother contestants than they can British politicians. The reason why political participation is so shamefully low amongst younger people is part of a wider political culture that is developing amongst UK youth.
I won’t hide my unusual interest in this subject, as a 17 year old student and a political party member applying for a politics course at university I am most definitely to be seen as an abnormality. However I can see an obvious trend amongst my peers.
To most young people politics is “boring”. This though is inevitable when you don’t know what the rules of the game are. Cricket is boring to those who don’t understand the numerous rules and customs, but fascinating to those who do. The same goes for chess, rugby, opera etc. Some readers of this blog may never watch a television programme such as Big Brother, but if they understood the house dynamics and rules from the start then they might well have been captivated by it.
Young people have lost touch with the detail of the art of politics - a void is easily filled by popular celebrity culture. The proliferation of glossy magazines and tabloid sales in past years demonstrates this. The vast majority of people read, whether or not their journal talks about Gordon Brown or Amy Winehouse or (as it should) both is a different question. It’s a matter of out of sight and out of mind that creates a vicious spiral of disengagement.
I feel that if you want to get more young people like myself involved in politics, you’ve got to give them a basic understanding of what politics is, how it is run and what it does. Every party political promise to “engage” with young people is otherwise wasted. Initiatives to make it easier to vote by text or email are just another layer of wasted electoral funds, when they will likely remain unused or abused. Besides, do we really want anyone to vote if they are so uninformed or uncommitted that the bother of walking to the polling station every year or so is overwhelming?
It’s important to say the solution is not to dumb down electoral politics. Moving the goalposts of the beautifully simple system used in Westminster would be a very shortsighted and frankly an irrational move. Instead we need a political culture, not in the sense of a culture of protecting civil liberties or one political colour or another, but a culture of being interested and informed in politics. This should be done though, not through youth groups or policy think tanks, but the one place that we are a captive audience, schools.
If we could develop a culture in which young children are given doses of politics and current affairs alongside their English and Maths, as well as promoting a sense of civic duty and citizenship we’d invest them with a valuable knowledge of politics for life.
Some schools do now offer an A level or GCSE in politics. I can certainly vouch for the fact that the A level covers the subject in admirable detail. Well taught students will leave with an understanding of our constitution, electoral matters and a grounding of recent political history.
But these are optional and only offered to a small number of fortunate students, arguably at too old an age. It doesn’t need to be in the form of a qualification either. I believe something in the mould of the government secondary school compulsory citizenship course is more what we need. The course itself it frankly poorly thought out, too short and fails to discuss our democracy to an adequate level. However it is a starting point.
My point is though, that representative democracy is built upon informed voters, and informed voters require political knowledge. I look at my peers and it does seem that without a foundation in political education, the political side of our brain never gets going. I certainly don’t think a compulsory politics course is the panacea to our political educational need, or the social problems young people face. However it will at least in part help enrich our political process.
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