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Sunday, 13 May, 2001, 23:12 GMT
Winning the youth vote

By BBC News Online's Andy Tate

Depending on who you speak to, the growing number of young people with no interest in conventional politics can be seen as a threat to democracy or a cause for celebration.

But perhaps the challenge lies in explaining why the political process is such a turn-off for so many of the younger generation.

With an election underway, politicians will be seeking to shore up additional support from wherever they can.


Young people see themselves more as consumers than citizens

Rachel Newsome
Editor, Dazed & Confused

But while efforts to woo the votes of 11 million pensioners may yield results for politicians, similar efforts to attract young people are only likely to yield yawns.

For the statistics suggest that youth and politics just do not mix.

  • In 1992, 68% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the general election

  • At the last election in 1997, this figure fell to 60%

  • Only three in five young people aged between 18 and 24 are on the electoral register

    Young adults are less interested in politics today than they were five years ago, according to a survey of British attitudes, and the trend looks set to continue.

    'Danger to democracy'

    At a recent debate organised by the left-leaning think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the Minister for Young People Paul Boateng told an audience of teenagers and twentysomethings that this apparent apathy was "an indictment of us as politicians, which could become a danger to democracy".

    And the government could claim it is putting its money where the minister's mouth is.

    Paul Boateng
    Mr Boateng: Youth apathy could become "a danger to democracy"

    A total of 450m has been allocated to a children and young people's unit over the next three years.

    Whether the attention will be enough to motivate those young people to use their votes is another matter.

    The political parties are putting a brave face on the facts.

    The Labour Party claims 30,000 of its members are aged 15-24.

    A Conservative spokesman insisted its youth wing, Conservative Future, is "thriving", particularly on university campuses, although no figures were available.

    Youth membership
    Labour 30,000
    Lib Dem 5,000
    Tories N/A

    And it is re-spinning its Keep the Pound campaign as "Quids In" in an attempt to recruit young people to the anti-euro cause.

    Liberal Democrats Youth and Students counts 5,000 members under 26.

    A spokesman says the Lib Dems have benefited from disillusioned ex-Labour supporters, and their policy to abolish the widely-hated tuition fee.

    Incredibly, all parties insist interest is growing and recruitment is up.

    Voting age

    One MP has started a campaign to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 in an attempt to increase turnout.

    Labour MP Nigel Griffiths believes that a lower legal age limit would help young people feel more a part of the democratic process at a crucial stage of their development.

    Nigel Griffiths MP
    Mr Griffiths wants voting age to be lowered to 16

    He says that if they were involved earlier they would be more likely to vote in later life.

    Mr Griffiths told BBC News Online: "Why should voting have captured their interest when political parties did not seem to be interested in them when they were 16 or 17?"

    He is planning to introduce a private members' bill in the next parliament with the aim of having the voting age cut in time for the election after next.

    "I think one of the reasons for the low voting tendencies among young people is that they come to voting too late," he said.

    'Greedy pigs'

    This view is flatly rejected by comedian and journalist Mark Thomas.

    At the IPPR debate he suggested young people were not interested in mainstream politics "because politicians by and large are uninterested in them."

    They considered politicians to be, among other things, "lying, self-serving, greedy pigs".

    He said: "People regard them as sleazy to a greater or lesser degree."

    Mark Thomas
    Mark Thomas said direct action was increasing
    But far from regretting this disillusionment, Mr Thomas said it was "absolutely brilliant" that young people were not interested in mainstream politics.

    Instead, he said, a "grassroots approach is beginning to come through, operating outside mainstream political structures."

    While effecting change through party politics was a lengthy and often futile process, the immediacy of direct action and "creative dissent" increasingly offered people "a real chance to feel empowered" he claimed.

    Not so, according to Alison Park, research director at the National Centre for Social Research.

    Ms Park disputed the rise of young people taking to the streets, saying it was "not very common".

    But she cautioned that any analysis of political apathy needed to make clear that "people do get involved more in politics as they get older".

    Young people, she said, were generally "no more cynical about politics than anyone else".

    'Consumers not citizens'

    The editor of trendy style magazine Dazed & Confused, Rachel Newsome, issued the starkest warning to anyone trying to tempt the young into politics.

    To cheers from the audience, she said: "Young people see themselves more as consumers than citizens."

    They make a difference through the consumer choices they make, and perceive government to be "part of the problem".

    It was a case of idealism being replaced by pragmatism, she said.

    "Their sense of identity comes from trainers they wear on their feet.

    "Young people do have a voice but it is outside the political system... not by fighting political system but by ignoring it."

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