Page last updated at 18:30 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Can politicians get young voters motivated?

By Alex Hudson
BBC News


Some new voters give their verdict on politics

For any politician who has ever uttered the words "down with the kids", the following news should make for harrowing reading.

A new report from the Hansard Society has found people under 35 to be the most "disengaged" and "mistrusting" of politics.

Perhaps this explains why, on the same day, the Electoral Commission has released results that suggests 56% of 17 to 24-year-olds may not be registered to vote.

Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society's parliament and government programme, says that the research shows that young people are "less knowledgeable, less interested and less politically active than average" but that the figures are "complex and often contradictory".

I think it is true to say that people don't engage with the word politics but it's often the way it's presented
Onyeka Igwe, Catch 21

Onyeka Igwe, a producer at Catch 21 - a political and current affairs internet TV station for 14-25 year olds - says it is the word "politics", rather than individual policies, that first-time voters are sceptical about.

"I think it is true to say that people don't engage with the word politics but it's often the way it's presented. Young people see politics as the news or a particular brand of highbrow programme," she says.

"Quite a lot of young people are interested in big issues - climate change, global poverty, war - they are interested in politics in this way because it's not presented as this highbrow, closed group."

The Hansard research was preceded recently by a Children's Society poll where only 8% of 11 to 25-year-olds believed politicians cared about young people's views.

Fewer than one in 20 young people - 4% - said they believed politicians acted in the best interests of young people.

Grass-roots campaign

But there is huge potential - around four million young people have become eligible to vote since the last general election.

As shown by Barack Obama's election win in the US, where a grass-roots campaign of predominantly young people yielded such success for him, young voters really can make a difference.

In the UK, research by Nuffield General Election Studies suggests that if it was only the votes of young people that were counted, the Labour Party would have won nearly every election in the last 40 years.

However, turnout among younger voters has historically been poor, with 39% of 18-24 year olds voting in 2001 and 37% in 2005 compared to about 60% nationally.

Dermot O'Leary
Join Dermot O'Leary as first time voters put their questions to politicians and public figures
First Time Voters' Question Time
BBC Three

The idea of the youth being disengaged with politics is not a new one.

A report for the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends (Crest) states that in 1983, 62% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they cared who won the contest between Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot.

Ahead of the 1997 general election, 77% of these same people - now aged between 32 and 38 - said they cared who won.

There was no appreciable change between the two readings among older voters.

Voting habit

So, has anything changed over the last decade and will the voting intentions of young people, or their decision not to vote at all, affect the 2010 election?

"It is always, always, always true and always has been true throughout the history of democracy that young people are less likely to turn out and vote," says Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University.

"It's a perennial problem. What is true is that the gap appears to have widened in recent elections and we're seeing that the commitment to vote amongst younger people has been particularly eroded.

"The problem is that we now have a generation of younger adults who have entered elections at a time when voting was not a dominant thing.

"Because of that we now have a generation who have yet to catch the voting habit."

Social meddling

Politicians have always struggled with trying to appeal to the young - William Hague wearing a baseball cap for example - but recent research seems to suggest that the use of social media is becoming the baseball cap of the 21st Century.

To vote in a general election your name must be on the electoral register
Check with your local council to find out whether you are on it
If you are not registered, you need to fill out and return a registration form
You can pick one up at your local election office or download one from the Electoral Commission website

A new report from website Politics Home states: "Young people are particularly sceptical: almost two-thirds of 18-29 year-olds believe that networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are an 'overrated and often pointless' way of carrying out political debate.

"Only 9% see such websites as 'useful' for campaigning."

More than 100 MPs use the site Twitter and who can forget Gordon Brown's first attempt at a YouTube video?

But Ms Igwe is unsure about their use for party political campaigning.

"When politicians post YouTube videos or use Facebook it's very transparent and feels a little bit patronising. It doesn't come across as credible," she says.

Revellers enjoy themselves in a bar in Newcastle
Young people are often stereotyped as preferring partying to party politics

The figures from the Hansard survey back this up. When looking at the whole population, only a small number of people use either Facebook (4%) or Twitter (2%) to follow a political group or politician.

So how can politicians succeed in getting young people to vote?

"Perhaps by stepping out into the local communities at times when they aren't trying to win our votes," says Roxy Shamsolmaali, education officer at the University of Nottingham's student union.

Others believe what is needed is good, old-fashioned communication.

"I think the best way is to talk to [young people]. Knock on their doors and hold meetings. Politicians talk to people all the time and the young should be no different," Onyeka Igwe says.

With four million new votes up for grabs it will be a battle that few parties will give up on easily although Prof Curtice says they must be realistic about what influence they can have.

"We should try all things with a realisation that some things that influence political engagement - having a long-term relationship, a mortgage, children - don't necessarily come along when you're 18."

First Time Voters' Question Time presented by Dermot O'Leary was broadcast on BBC Three on Wednesday 3 March 2010 and is available for a week on BBC iPlayer

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