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Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 08:47 GMT
Young people vote against politics
Electoral Commission outreach project
Young people are urged to value their vote

Why don't young people bother to vote?

The reasons given by a group of 17 and 18 year olds in north-west London are not good news for anyone involved in the political process.

Politicians are seen as sleazy and untrustworthy, parliament is seen as a mysterious pantomime and political coverage is seen as incomprehensible and dull.

39% under 24 year olds voted in general election
11% young people vote in local elections
More votes cast for Pop Idol than general election
Last general election had lowest turn-out since 1918

And instead of being first-time voters at the next general election, these students are more likely to be first-time abstainers.

The Electoral Commission is so concerned by the apathy of young voters, that it is running a campaign to sell the message that "Votes Are Power".

With a competition and a cinema advertisement supporting the campaign, the Electoral Commission is visiting schools to encourage young people to talk about their perceptions of politics.

As an indication of the extent of the lack of engagement with politics, the Electoral Commission says that only about one in ten people under the age of 24 are expected to vote in this year's local elections.


And the sixth formers at Queen's Park Community School in Brent showed a deep cynicism towards their elected representatives.

Although articulate and ready to talk about issues affecting their lives, these youngsters could see little connection between their own experiences and the remote world of Westminster.

What was most striking was not their antipathy towards politicians and their parties, but their complete indifference.

Zishan Sialvi
Zishan Sialvi says that the prime minister should focus on issues at home and not Iraq

Who is the leader of the Conservatives? Tony Benn, ventured one student, without a hint of irony. No, John Major, said another. Until another sixth former said it was Iain Duncan Smith.

But in practice, this group of young people drew few distinctions between Benn, Blair or Duncan Smith - and did not recognise any differences between parties.

"Tony Blair said he would improve the health service and do something about crime. But they make promises and never deliver," said Kalpna Hirani.

And she couldn't understand why the prime minister "kept going on about Iraq", when there was so much wrong at home.

Street crime

This young Londoner was worried about street crime, problems with public transport and the National Health Service, but she saw no prospect of these being addressed by politicians.

Kalpna Hirani
Kalpna Hirani said that politicians could not be trusted to keep promises

Zishan Sialvi also could not understand why so much attention was being paid to Iraq when voters were still waiting for improvements on their doorsteps.

And he reflected a general indifference to the political institutions.

They had concerns about the threat of war, drugs, crime, parking and tax, but did not see this as feeding into Westminster-style politics.

"Politics is the last thing on young people's minds," he said.

The group of sixth formers, encouraged by representatives of the Electoral Commission, were not unaware of the benefits of voting.

They were quick to list the idea that voting was a way of getting an opinion heard and that it was a way of applying pressure.

10p price of apathy

And there were suggestions that allowing people to vote through text messages could make elections more accessible.

Queen's Park Community School
Young people were asked to list reasons why they should or should not vote

But the youngsters were not convinced that it would be worth paying the 10p that it would cost to vote.

Such reluctance to engage with politics is a problem that we should take seriously, says the Electoral Commission.

If the prospect of an 11% turn-out was projected into the future, there would come a point at which it undermined the legitimacy of elected authorities.

Gemma Crosland and Tabitha Cunniffe of the Electoral Commission, leading the seminar, say they want to find a way to make connections between young people's interest in issues and the democratic process.

"They are very interested in issues, but not as bothered about voting," says Gemma Crosland.

The reasons for this are less clear. It could be a declining sense of civic duty or the lack of allegiances to political parties, suggests Tabitha Cunniffe. Or perhaps that the major parties are too alike.

The "Westminster village" mentality is also seen as a barrier, with the politicians and journalists perceived as operating in a closed world that is detached from everyday concerns.

The head of sixth at Queen's Park Community School, Jennifer Akhurst, says that the school makes efforts to get pupils interested in politics, but "it's an uphill battle".

Although there will be a few enthusiastic pupils, she says that there is distinct "lack of interest in politics".

Votes are Power design competition, accessible through its website, ends on January 31.

See also:

05 Sep 02 | Politics
24 Jul 01 | Politics
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