BBC HOMEPAGE | NEWS | WORLD SERVICE | SPORT | MY BBC help
news vote 2001search vote 2001
 You are in: Vote2001: Forum
VOTE2001 
Main Issues 
Features 
Crucial Seats 
Key People 
Parties 
Results &  Constituencies 
Candidates 
Opinion Polls 
Online 1000 
Virtual Vote 
Talking Point 
Forum 
Leaders 
Election Trail 
AudioVideo 
Programmes 
Voting System 
Local Elections 
Nations 

N Ireland 
Scotland 
Wales 

BBC News

BBC Sport

BBC Weather
Friday, 25 May, 2001, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Radio 1's Polly Billington quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

  56k  


All political parties are frightened of the so-called apathy vote - a low turnout is particularly bad for Labour. The group of voters most likely not to turn out on polling day is aged 18-25.

Radio 1's political correspondent Polly Billington has been reporting on this election campaign in an attempt to get this group of would-be voters interested and even inspired in the prospect of voting.

What are the issues that interest young and first time voters and what are the issues that turn them off politics? Would lowering the voting age to 16 be the best way to tackle election apathy among young people as the National Youth Agency suggests?

How many of them know who their MP was in the last parliament and how many could name the key policy differences between the parties. Does it matter if the answer to these questions is very few?

Radio 1's political correspondent Polly Billington answered these and other questions on 25 May.


Below is a transcript of the interview:

News Online Host:

Hello and welcome to News Online's election talking point forum. With me is Polly Billington, who is political correspondent for Radio 1, the first person to hold such a post. Polly is answering your questions that you've sent in about the election. We'll start off, shall we, Polly, thank you for joining us, with one from Jordan, aged 11, from East Yorkshire, and Frances, aged 12, from Edinburgh, who both ask, they say no wonder young people are confused, there are a lot of different parties, so why are only Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats talked about on the news? Do you think broadcasters should give more attention to the other minor parties? They may well be the ones that have single issue policies which could appeal to young people.

Polly Billington:

Well, it's fair that we mainly concentrate on the Conservatives, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats that's basically because most people vote for them. And yes occasionally the minor parties do get enough votes for us to take more notice of them and back in the late 80s, for example, the Greens became very popular at a European election and we all thought that maybe they were going to become a new force in politics. We have to look very carefully at how we cover political parties. Really reflecting on how much support they've got in the country. Those minor parties can break through almost without our support on occasions like, for example, when the Greens did. But we have to make sure that we reflect the kind of support those parties get in the country. That's unfair for the minor parties perhaps but it's just the way it works.

News Online Host:

And which of the parties attract more support from young people?

Polly Billington:

Well, you see, there is a kind of misapprehension that young people are all really, really interested in minor issues and single issues and minor parties. Actually when Radio 1 did its opinion poll the interests, the priorities that they had were pretty much quite similar to the ones that the rest of the voters had. So, for example, the NHS became their top priority. How they actually vote, in terms of voting attention can vary from one election to another. Last election, for example, Labour won, did extremely well amongst young women but we expect in this election that that vote will be quite soft, as they say, they're not necessarily going to stay with Labour. They don't have the kind of loyalty to a party that previous generations have had so young voters are much less likely to have made up their minds and even when they do make up their minds they won't necessarily stick that way for future elections.

News Online Host:

They're more fickle?

Polly Billington:

They are more fickle but that's also because politics has changed. People don't have simply one identity. People used to make up their minds about how they voted according to what they thought of as their class, and their occupation. That tended to be something that certainly men did and women quite often a long time ago would just do what their husbands told them to. So that's completely changed. Women have jobs, women make up their own minds, and men, and women, have identities above and beyond simply the jobs that they do.

News Online Host:

Another question, now. It kind of leads on from what you were saying, this is from James Pittman in England who asks, it's often said that the younger generation aren't really interested in politics but tuition fees seem to be one very hot issue and it would serve Labour right if a whole generation remembers them for this at the ballot box over the coming years. For a party wanting to look young and trendy, it isn't doing very well in attracting support from millions of young students, is it? Are you finding that, Polly, that students have gone off Labour, where at one time you would have thought they'd naturally support Labour.

Polly Billington:

There was a time when you would, certainly , there was a time when there was a lot of support for the Labour party within student politics. Now things have changed. Partly because you will find a kind of natural antipathy to everything to do with the establishment amongst young people. So now the Labour party is in government, then people are going to say I don't like them anyway. And then there is obviously specific policy problems. Now, statistically I can't tell you whether that's going to make a big difference until we see the poll on June 7th, but I do know anecdotally when I've being doing stuff with young people and students as we've been talking to them as I've been going round the country, is that they seem to be very, very clear about the difference between the Labour party's policy on this and the Liberal Democrats and they tend to favour the Liberal Democrats because they say they were going to scrap tuition fees and so forth. What's interesting is that they don't seem to be as clear about the Tory policy, which is they wouldn't scrap student loans but they would mean they would make sure you didn't have to pay them back until you were earning 20,000, that's twice as much as the present ruling. So, the familiarity with all the party's positions on something like this, which does make a big difference to how much money you're going to have once you graduate is not necessarily as clear cut as sometimes people assume.

News Online Host:

OK, let's move on to apathy. Dave Harris in the Midlands asks, well he says, voter apathy is another word for laziness. Voting should be made mandatory to stop democracy being taken for granted. I am sick to the back teeth of seeing and reading interviews with the younger voters starting, well, I haven't got the time to vote. A few minutes out of anyone's schedule, every four or five years is not a lot to ask, is it? And then Claire Newman from Birmingham on the same subject asks, young women are among the most apathetic of all voters. Why then are the parties contributing to this by virtually excluding women from the campaign as highlighted this morning? Polly, you were at the press conference this morning

Polly Billington:

Yes, that's right

News Online Host:

Tell us what you saw.

Polly Billington:

It was quite ironic. A woman political correspondent asked why there were no, so few women on the platforms at these press conferences. Estelle Morris, education standards woman minister, was about to answer when Gordon Brown said, that's OK, I'll answer that, and it wasn't until then that he realised what kind of mistake he'd made. There is, there has been a lot of comment about the fact that there had been many fewer women on, particularly on the Labour platform than we've seen previously. Certainly in '97 they made an effort to make sure that there was a female presence. Now maybe that made a difference to how many women voted for them, maybe it didn't. But there's certainly much less of that this time, and maybe that will contribute to fewer people, fewer young women being interested in politics at all let alone voting Labour. I think one of the things that can be forgotten amongst politicians is that people do actually need to feel that they identify with the people that are talking to them about these things. And if there are people that you think of as like yourself, even the same gender is a start, then why take part in the process. So I think that is a valid thing. I think the issue of compulsory voting is slightly more complicated.

News Online Host:

Is it just laziness, though, voter apathy, that's what Dave Harris

Polly Billington:

Well, certainly the that I've done and the talking that I've done, it's much less to do with I haven't got the time, and more to do with I really don't know what they're talking about. And that's the biggest issue, I think, the biggest problem is that politicians talk a completely different language from most people today. And that's not just first time voters or young people, it's most normal people don't talk about literacy and numeracy. They talk about being able to add up, being able to read and write and the fact that they lose contact with ordinary language, they lose contact with ordinary people. And then they keep saying, why don't you take part in our conversations? And it's like saying, why don't you take part in my conversation even though I'm speaking Serbo Croat? When people can't speak Serbo Croat, they won't take part in your conversation and politicians can wring their hands as much as they like but unless they actually start changing the language that they use so that they include more people then people are going to say, I'm sorry it just has nothing to do with me.

News Online Host:

Taking a different tack on the same kind of subject is Ed Wilson from Leicester. Now he says, given that most young voters seem to have only the vaguest idea of distinctions between parties and policy issues, isn't it better that they abstain, rather than cast a vote in ignorance? Are they too stupid to vote?

Polly Billington:

I don't think it's that they're too stupid but I think there is an argument for saying that the issue that there is an enormous amount of ignorance. Now if people choose to cast their vote in ignorance or choose to abstain in ignorance that's entirely up to them and this is the freedom that we have that for example in Australia it is compulsory, at least to turn up at the polling station. If they, if he's saying it would be better if they knew more, yes, it would be better if they knew more. But then I think what is interesting about this election is that there has become quite a lot of informed opinion saying, actually, I do know quite a lot about what these parties are offering and none of it has anything to do with me. I'm making an informed choice to abstain. So that's the other side of abstaining from ignorance.

News Online Host:

Kate Elgood in London notes that the Liberal Democrats have called for the voting age to be lowered to 16. Do you think this would help reverse the disastrously low turnouts among young people?

Polly Billington:

I think all that would mean is that there would be more people as a proportion didn't turn up because more people would be entitled to vote. Maybe 16 and 17-year-olds are gagging to turn up and vote and take part in the political process, but since we know that in terms of the overall turnout across all age groups, let alone first time voters, that interest in taking part in this election is quite low in comparison to previous times. I'm sceptical that lowering the age of voting would actually mean that people would get involved in the political process more.

News Online Host:

Let's go on to the electoral system. This is from David in Milton Keynes who asks, as an 18-year-old male I've always been into politics as have many of my friends. Some however see it as boring and dull and say that it doesn't make a difference even if they do vote. Would you agree with him the problem with politics here is the first past the post system and to encourage more youth activity and election debates, presidential debates as in the US would encourage more interest among young people? How can you make it more interesting?

Polly Billington:

Well, presidential debates like they have in the US clearly don't encourage the interest in politics. Because we've seen that the turnout in the States is as low if not lower than we have here. So I think it's a mistake to assume that more media coverage in fact encourages more political debate and more political debate and more political interest. The idea that the first past the post system might encourage, might cause more problems is interesting because statistics across the whole of western Europe suggest a similar disengagement from the political process that we have here even though they have more kind of proportional systems. But the first past the post system also means that sometimes it can be very, very close. And when there's a very close election there is more chance there will be a high turnout. For example, in '92 when people thought there really was likely to be a hung parliament, the turnout was much higher than there was in '97 or we're expecting this time because there is a feeling that certainly in very, very safe seats which is what first past the post does, in very safe seats people don't feel the need to turn out, but in those crucial seats there is a high turnout. And so in some ways it's kind of swings and roundabouts.

News Online Host:

OK, party's electoral strategy. Sam Leighton from London wants to know why parties insist on wheeling out jaded celebrities to endorse them? Do they really expect anybody to be impressed?

Polly Billington:

I really don't know what the answer is to this. I mean I perpetually

News Online Host:

I mean, are you impressed when people like Chris Evans are being wheeled out? And Oasis, when they still liked Tony Blair?

Polly Billington:

I don't know whether when they still liked it I think then, that was less an electoral strategy and more to do with look what a new, bright, clean, fun, cool Britain, country we're living in. The use of, for example, Geri Halliwell in the party election broadcast by the Labour party last week is much more complicated. I think when you actually use them for electoral purposes, people think, hang on a minute, I'm not that stupid. I buy this person's records, it doesn't mean I will vote

News Online Host:

Do many 18-year-olds buy her records?

Polly Billington:

Well, I don't know 18-year-olds do buy her records. Again, it's a bit like the calling of the election campaign in front of schoolgirls who can't vote. If you use the wrong kind of celebrity you can make the same kind of mistake.

News Online Host:

OK, let's move on to our last question now. It's from Sarah Connelly in Darlington. She asks, why do you report political news differently on Radio 1 than you do for a dedicated political programme? By talking down to young voters won't you alienate them further?

Polly Billington:

Well, I hope I don't talk down to young voters on Radio 1

News Online Host:

What's the difference between

Polly Billington:

Well, there is a difference in that, to be quite honest, we don't use a lot of that arcane political language. The dedicated political programmes do. And there's obviously good reasons for that dedicated, that kind of political language on dedicated political programmes because it's for people who know all the ins and outs of it. But for most people, and I'm talking genuinely broadcasting rather than narrowcasting simply to first time voters, language needs to be kept simple so that the issues come to the fore and we don't get caught up in the jargon of politics.

News Online Host:

Alright, in simple language then, thank you very much Polly Billington, political correspondent from Radio 1, for joining us. I'm Lisa Mann, and that's the end of this Talking Point election forum.

 A/V CONSOLE
BBC RADIO NEWS
BBC ONE TV NEWS

Related stories:

25 May 01 |  Talking Point
Is university now just for the rich?
©BBC