The following piece refers to "The Future Electorate; the Problems with Politics". Read the report here.
Earlier on this month, as my summer drew to a close, I published a report online in time for parliament's return on 5th September. It had taken the majority of my summer to write and was, by far, the most comprehensive piece I had ever written. It was by no means a struggle to work on though, as I was writing for a cause. Regular readers of my blog posts and columns will know that I have a passion for politics. I read, listen, watch and learn about it every day before writing about it. However, no book, newspaper editorial, radio feature or television documentary has been able to answer a simple question that I have been pondering all year. Why, at a time when the present and future lives of teenagers are being deeply affected by politics, am I part of a minute minority of young people that seem to care about it? I started venting my parliamentary ponderings by writing because I couldn't find another substantial way to do so whilst bracketed under "youth". The aim of my report was to explain why the political disengagement of young people is a problem, and kickstart a productive debate suggesting solutions.
The feedback to the piece has been phenomenal, and I have received nearly two hundred tweets and emails from people of many ages and backgrounds. Today, as MPs look back on a hectic week and a half in parliament and look ahead to the Conference Season, I would like to bring a few of the best responses to their attention.
The report focuses heavily on the negative feelings that future voters have about politics, after 84% of respondents in a survey I carried out used critical words to describe what the British political system meant to them. SNP Campaigner Ross Cunningham told me that there is a difference in attitude between the political systems of Westminster and Holyrood. He raised the example of the Scottish Parliamentary Elections earlier this year, and claimed that whilst the SNP ran a fairly positive campaign that enthused supporters, those of Westminster-based parties, particularly Labour, had been fairly negative. This may have been a partial contributory factor in the SNP's landslide victory earlier on this year. Whether Ross' specific example of this year's election campaigns is accurate or not, his analysis of parliamentary negativity is undeniably correct. Voters of all ages are hardly going to express an interest.
Vikki Baker told me that she believed there was currently a lack of specific personalities within British politics, raising two examples. The first was Barack Obama and how, during the 2008 American Presidential Elections, he created a level of excitement in politics that is unimaginable over our side of the Atlantic. Her second example was Tony Blair. She pointed out that that, disregarding his later years in office, his early leadership displayed him as a young, normal guy who knew how to speak well in public. This, similarly to the Obama effect, created a buzz around politics which arguably has not been seen in the UK since the initial days of New Labour's power.
Of all the feedback I have gained following the publication of the report, not a single person has disagreed with my view that the way politics is taught needs to be examined and reformed. Ashley Wilkes explained to me that he shares my interest in politics, but it was not ignited by the Citizenship lessons he endured in his time in school. He doesn't think that the current system of an individual hour-long lesson being taught every two months is going to help interest levels. Not only do I agree with this, but I would repeat these comments when analysing the General Studies scheme for sixth form students. These two subjects could be used as a force for good in the political engagement of young people, but a lack of relevant substance and time to teach it is turning it against the cause I am fighting for.
A general suggestion I made for in-school political education was the idea of a "Politics Day". Conservative MP for Corby Louise Mensch agreed with the proposal of a single day when secondary school students could learn about parliament and bridge the gap between their lives and Westminster. Nevertheless, numerous teachers contacted me to say they thought it would be practically impossible to remove students from lessons for an entire day when the national curriculum continues to be so strict.
When writing the piece, I made a point of complimenting the news service by BBC Radio 1, Newsbeat, which provides millions of young people information about politics on a daily basis. I was delighted that Jim Reed, a senior broadcast journalist for BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 1Xtra, contacted me with his thoughts. He explained that teenagers get very passionate when asked how an issue that affects them can be sorted by the police, politicians or general authorities, but are put off by the traditions of politics. He noted that the pomp and ceremony of Westminster politics just doesn't match up with the politics of the real world.
I was very keen to question in the report what the media could do to help parliament interest youth, given the current transfer of political status and power from journalists to politicians in the wake of the hacking scandal. Ross Cunningham was keen to express his view that media organisations should simply not be able to have any influence over the outcome of elections. He suggested that the Press Complaints Commission be externally regulated and controlled, with no input from the editors and executives of newspapers. As much as I am personally undecided on this topic, I want the debates over the PCC in the next few months to be fair, and I fear that Ross' argument may be overlooked. It shouldn't be; there is no question that the press should have complete creative freedom but titles and journalists should be punished if they exploit this freedom.
I am delighted with the debate that the report has started, and hope that individual sections of it can be incorporated into the sittings of party conferences over the next few weeks. MPs, teachers and journalists alike can all do their bit in helping bridge the gap between parliament and youth. I hope that I have boosted the discussion over how to go about doing that, but most of all, I dream of an era when politics can be where it belongs; at the forefront of our country's society.