“Too young to vote, but not too young to be heard by those that do.”

By James Cathcart, first published in ‘Children Young People Now’

| 09 November 2019 |

At some point during the election campaign commentators and parties will focus on policies relating to children and young people, such as education and knife crime and will also target the 18-24 youth vote with promises around employment, housing and debt, and of course, Brexit.

However, there is another influential group, whose agenda is usually ignored by the mainstream media and public opinion in the run up to elections, but whose influence should not be underestimated in voting households since the last election – children and young people under 18.

While too young to vote they are not too young to be heard. More and more, having realised their potential influence, are gaining the confidence to demand that their voices are not only heard but taken seriously. They are learning new ways to do this, notably by taking direct action and being seen to do this. Their voice is increasingly amplified, networked and mobilised through social and mainstream media, to the broader voting public.

No longer relying on inadequate citizenship education to learn about democracy and increasingly frustrated by the time it’s taking to realise votes at 16, Generation Z are self-educating, self-supporting and self-empowering to make a difference on the issues that matter to them. Their social action journey is not just ‘stepping up’ to volunteer to address local challenges but ‘stepping out’ to take action with joined up campaigning to address some of the issues underlying them those challenges. Their journey has included an awareness of whats needed to get a reaction, not only by building a case, but by mobilising support from peers and older allies to influence public opinion. 

Several new youth-led campaigning organisations and platforms have also emerged to address key issues such as Brexit. Some are calling for better democracy education and some have set up youth-led social enterprises to offer that curriculum direct to schools. These platforms are gaining traction with young people making the transition to first-time voter, but also inspire younger activists (or social action volunteers) to successfully mobilise children and young people who are even younger.

Greta Thunberg and the School Strike for Climate movement is inspiring children to take action. These “new kids on the block” are pushing on from the less well publicised, but significant reach of, the UK Youth Parliament in shaping and mandating the campaigning agenda. For example its #MakeYourMark ballot, the largest youth vote in Europe, mobilised 1.1 million individual voters in 2018 and 825,000 in 2019 and has prioritised: protecting the environment, knife crime, mental health, hate crime and curriculum for life.

Scotland is a good example of how a nation can embrace the views of young people into its political culture, with the successful introduction of votes at 16 in 2014 and the ongoing relationship with young people and their views through a dialogue with Scottish Youth Parliament which represents young people aged 14-25. (The UK Youth Parliament is up to and including 18). 2018 was declared the Year of Young People in Scotland with the motto “Nothing About Us Without Us”.

In the post analysis of the UK 2017 general election, it was evident that some parties had started to listen to what young people and their campaigners had been saying for years “Talk to us – not about us” and gained more traction with younger voters. Labour started using language direct to young people, both at rallies and through social media – and the subsequent increase in their vote-share, has prompted other parties to rethink their assumptions about the youth-vote.*

Young campaigners’ messages are no longer just heard by the decision-makers they target. They have the potential to influence voters too and indirectly put pressure on the politicians to respond. In the same way that when young people say “we must take action” the “we” and “action” not only means the government, but includes all of us as individuals in how we lead our lives – and in the act of voting.

James Cathcart is director and advocate for Young Voices Heard @YVH_YouthVoice

*I was not surprised that when a party started to change their language from “Young people deserve better mental health services and we will do x and y for them” to “You deserved better mental health services and we will do and y for you” , that they got a response. Politicians had become used to going through the third party of the media and everyone has caught used to referring to the electorate in the third person. However social media has allowed parties to start to speak to their target audiences directly. Any party can challenge the assumptions about how they will vote. I also believe that todays 16 and 17 voters, well not necessarily follow the same trends as previous cohorts who are now 18 – 24 years old. Every few years each new generation could be influenced and have different priorities. If policies are proposed that respond directly to their agenda they will be popular. If not I believe we are not far from seeing a group of these younger voters forming their own Youth Party, and if they threaten marginal seats, they will pull mainstream politics – and the media – towards their agenda.

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