A strong #youthvote turnout is in the national interest because it is a measure of the health of our democracy, an early indicator of the life-time relationship between voters and their representatives, a sign of understanding, a dividend of education and a measure of mandate. We need to nurture it, and if we feed it, it will grow to benefit us all. However, evidence suggests the trend has been in the other direction. For example recent analysis by the Electoral Reform Society indicates that the change from household (and university) registration has resulted in a drop by a third the number of school leavers who would normally be registered at 16 and 17 (attainers) in the last three years.
In the UK young people aged 18-24 were already the group least likely to vote resulting in what appears to be a stand-off between most politicians and parties who therefore do not target their vote, and the majority of potential young voters, who are unwilling to trust the politicians, or do not have enough basic information to make an informed choice. This will be compounded by the numbers dropping of the electoral register due to the changes. Having met representatives on both sides, and seen examples of higher voter turnout in youth-led democracy, I believe we can challenge this negative cycle, and replace it with a positive one, through education and dialogue, and immediate review of the current registration system. Once politicians see the possibility of increasing the #youthvote, and young people realise their #votepower, the cycle will work to reinforce itself and result in a mutually beneficial relationship, better laws and governance. Something needs to kick start this reform – a lead from politicans perhaps? media awareness? Perhaps parents and the general electorate will raise their voices?
This article will suggest five immediate actions for stakeholders in the run-up to GE17. It will then introduce an agenda of ten proposed reforms in support of greater youth participation in society across all walks of life, including democracy. They draw on many existing ideas and developing good practice. The aim is to stimulate discussion and but are also a call to action after the election. This is when the campaign for democratic engagement for GE2022 should really begin. Democracy is a dialogue not just an election and there are five years worth of 13-18 year olds to be educated and engaged, ready to vote in 2022, in addition to those who want to know how to inform and influence Government. People of all ages, an intergenerational alliance, will need to mobilise behind this if we are to secure a healthy democratic future.
Left/Right, In/Out, Strong/Weak, media messages and alternative pledges, bombard our senses around the clock. Although 73% of us believe Parliament is essential to our democracy, only 30% of all ages are satisfied that it works well. https://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/research/audit-of-political-engagement ) I wonder if come June 2017 there may be an even lower overall turnout than usual because, not only are we dissatisfied, but polls have so far have predicted the winner and, as Brenda from Bristol said, “there’s too much politics going on at the minute”. At the last general election in 2015 younger voters (aged 18-24) were the age group least likely to vote – estimated at around 43%. The Hansard Society report, which conducted its research before the election announcement, found that only 39% of this group said they were absolutely certain to vote in a snap election. Within that group, there are a million eligible students and a more recent survey stated that 9 in 10 had already registered, and over 50% of these said they were certain to vote. (Higher Ed Policy Inst/Youthsight www.hepi.ac.uk/2017/05/04/4081 ).
As someone who champions youth participation I believe a strong #youthvote turnout, that restores parity with other age groups and for non-students, will put young people’s range of priorities back on the agenda, both with politicians, the general public and the media, and in so doing, prompt policy responses and investment in the next generation. This will encourage and motivate young people to share their views again, and to vote again. This is in everyone’s long-term national interest, because if their issues are addressed – such as relevant education, access to training, first jobs, equal pay, affordable housing, avoiding debt, coping with poor mental health, addressing inequality, victims of crime, care for the environment, promoting inclusion, challenging discrimination … it will improve the health, wealth and well-being of young people – a regeneration. This will, in turn and over time, grow through society and repay that investment for the benefit of all age groups and future generations. That investment needs to be continuous for every new generation approaching the transition to young adulthood and citizenship.
So in the short-term before the General Election 2017, I am supporting and urging young people to use their #votepower by registering and voting, and become active stakeholders. I’m also calling on politicians to give them something specific to vote for in a #youthmanifesto, along with a promise of a cabinet level Minister to ensure its carried out, backed up with a new Ministry for Youth, that continues dialogue and consultation during the lifetime of Parliament. Democracy is a dialogue between representatives and the represented to ensure ongoing accountability, delivery and relevance.
#Youthvotemax #GE17: Five invitations to stakeholders.
1. Parties: Publish a #Youthmanifesto, summarising your commitment, policy and plans for young people, aged both under and over 18.
2. Candidates: Have a dialogue with the young electorate, talk to them, not about them. For example “If you are 18-24, this message is for you..” or “If you are under 18, I’ll be representing you too, so tell me what matters to you…”. Listen to what they and their representatives are saying, and respond.
3. Media: Invite young representatives and leaders to your studios and websites to highlight their issues and ask questions of candidates direct, providing comment on their response.
4. Young people: Empower yourselves and each other in democracy, registering to vote, and researching candidates and their policies. Have a debate, at home, college or work, about why you should vote and who to vote for. Then you decide what to do.
5. Young leaders/champions : Write, tweet, blog your views, call the media, do your own media, campaign and request a right to be heard and a right to reply to politicians. MAKE SOME NOISE.
These are just a few ideas for action, some of which I know people are trying to implement already.
We should also celebrate and value those young people who do vote, as well as understanding those who don’t, and through research and consultation with both groups, learn what works and why, and use this to inform future preparation and engagement of the electorate. Instead I read and hear a narrative that dismisses all of the #youthvote as disinterested and not worth targeting. Perhaps this is why basic citizenship education has not been a priority in the past. However young voters become older voters and this democratic deficit may start to permeate other age groups, especially now that its down to the individual and not the household, to register to vote. We may see a knock on effect to older age groups in the future.
As well as this threat, there is also opportunity. I have not only noticed more campaigns to increase voter registration than in 2010, 2015 and the referenda, but also have seen more youth-led initiatives and young individuals who are ‘self-empowering’ their own social action agenda (accelerated through the internet), finding their voice and mobilising each other. In my view our society’s institutions need to catch up, respond and work with these youth-led initiatives and supporting youth organisations, as partners, leading us to reform, so that one day every 16 year old will have been registered and educated on how to vote, as of right, as well as become an a powerful stakeholder through other forms of civic youth participation – volunteering, advising and decision-making.
Surely this generation’s existing record of voluntary service, social action, and engagement with the issues they care about, earn them the right to be heard, have their questions answered, and to be better prepared through education, to more fully participate in public life.
“Greater youth participation in public life is the foundation of a healthy society.”
The ten proposals below speak to a wider agenda of youth participation in all walks of life. Many of these build on existing good practice, acknowledging the growing confidence and self-empowerment of young people already, to be more active citizens. Indeed these proposals have been inspired and informed by young people that I have worked with, and listened to, over the last 35 years across the UK. Many have since continued to play their part as active citizens through youth social action volunteering. I’m encouraged that their work is already having an influence on public life and public policy. Some are even stepping up to stand as candidates in council or national elections, and winning! They do not want to be the leaders of tomorrow – but the leaders of today. Its only a matter of time before their young leaders start to significantly influence national youth-policy development from the inside of political parties, and that others will look to set up their own parties, or even stand as the independents, the Youth Candidate, in a by-election. I want to enable and empower that process so that we have more young leaders across all walks of life.
An Agenda for reform 2017-2022
Whatever the turnout in June I believe that the new Government should commit to introduce reforms within five years, that will strengthen youth participation in public life in general and our democratic engagement in particular. Not just voter-registration campaigns in the final year of a five year election cycle, but an ambitious and ongoing programme of education and legislation to empower youth participation in all walks of life in society and democracy, coordinated and championed by a Minister for Youth, with a Ministry for Youth, audited by a Select Committee and independent Youth Commissioner, and prioritised by the Government and the Prime Minister.
This commitment would need to go hand-in-hand with all political parties looking to develop youth-relevant polices and pledges so that young voters would have a reason to vote in 2022.
The Government would need to seek all-party support, such as that mobilised for the Step Up to Serve/#iwill campaign (social action volunteering) and the National Citizen Service.
In recent years young people have stepped up in their thousands to volunteer for their communities and country, as well as engaging in significant numbers to support their youth-in-democracy initiatives such as youth councils and the UK Youth Parliament. Surely the younger generation have earned the right to be better served as citizens, by their Parliament, their Government, their elders? Here’s how.. .
1. A revived Youth Citizenship Commission to review and champion the following nine measure, including producing a Green Paper on democracy and citizenship.
2. Auto-enrolment of all young voters through schools, as the entitlement of every pupil.
3. A new Youth Minister at Cabinet level coordinating youth policies across Government Departments.
4. A new Ministry for Youth, whose purpose would be to coordinate across Government, as well as consult with, and listen to young representatives and stakeholders between elections. Parliament would set up a matching Select Committee, and the Opposition, a Shadow Youth Minister – both to have access to youth representation.
5. Strengthened duties to consult young people on local and national Government policy and decision-making, particularly where it affects children and young people.
6. A new independent Youth Commissioner championing youth participation across society in general and holding Government to account in particular.
7. New powers and seats in decision-making committees for local youth councils and devolved national youth parliaments, in local and devolved government.
8. A new Institute for Youth in Governance, to increase the number of young people trained and supported to take up positions as Trustees/Directors on Boards, in all sectors including business, charities, sport and the arts, starting with the public sector particularly Government Departments, Local Government and those they work with. It would include a think-tank for research, debate and fresh proposals.
9. Credits for youth volunteering against the costs/loans of higher and further education, apprenticeship and training.
10. Measures to introduce votes at 16 alongside a democracy curriculum, to ensure equal voting rights across the UK in all elections, in time for 2022.
These are just some ideas that focus on giving young people an informed voice and platform to participate in decision-making and democracy. I’d be interested in hearing other ideas, particularly from young people, and learning from other countries. For example: Alternative voting models/proportional representation; a reformed second chamber including young senators representing all our communities and cultures; a fit-for-purpose parliament building using modern technology. Through ongoing discussion, argument and persuasion we can use the new Institute for Youth in Governance to shape, improve and address the feasibility of new proposals. This democratic dialogue, that informs and influences, is itself a feature of a modern and healthy democracy, and needs space to thrive.
These ideas and how they might be implemented, are very much up for debate. Some could be adopted under existing institutions and in partnerships, but not at the cost of being watered down or side-lined. Let’s hear that debate, including the views of young people front and centre, going forward, because I believe that if we value, support, enable and embrace youth participation we will improve our decision-making today, and governance tomorrow.
Finally I appeal to those who have the power and influence to do so, of all ages, to consider how best to introduce these, or other, youth-friendly policies and practices over the next five years, and for politicians to consider what proportion of their pledges could be usefully deployed to encourage voter-registration and turnout in this and subsequent elections.
(c) James Cathcart May17
First published 2nd May 2017 and updated 15th May 2017