I am a young person. You might not think that if you ever saw me face-to-face. I don't get ID'd when buying alcohol and people don't hand me leaflets for their awesome club nights, but I am still a young person. I'm 22. I'm also quite unusual for a young person in terms of political engagement. I vote, and I vote whenever I can. The only time I've not voted in an election for which I was eligible was a by-election in the West Midlands for the new Police and Crime Commissioner. Personally, I think that's justifiable. Those elections are a waste of time. But anyway - I do still vote, and that is still unusual. It's unusual for young people to care about politics. The political parties are always worrying that young people aren't connected to the political system. They're forever asking, 'What can we do to get young people on board with us?' I imagine they are, anyway.
Young people aren't joining political parties at the same rate as they were in the past. They don't vote at local, European or general elections in great numbers. You'd be forgiven for thinking that young people didn't care about politics or the direction of the country. A lot of people did think just that, right up until the Scottish referendum blew that myth out of the water.
In the referendum, anyone over the age of 16 had the vote. And, shock horror, it looks like they used it. We can't be sure, because none of the networks conducted an exit poll on the day of the referendum. (To go off-topic for a second - what a stupid idea that was. Why did we not have an exit poll for an election that could prove to be the most consequential of our lifetimes? It's not as if the pundits had enough stuff to talk about in the gap between polls closing and results being announced. I know that for a fact - I was watching.) Despite the lack of an exit poll, it looks like young people did turn out to vote in the referendum. Turnout in general was exceptional, at way over 80% across Scotland. Young people drove that turnout in a way that was extraordinary. By doing so, they've shown that they are perfectly capable of getting engaged with a question of politics.
There are no excuses any more. Politicians can't just give up on attracting young voters. The Scottish results shows that they're out there and they're ready to vote for a cause that appeals to them. The lazy stereotype of the student who's too hungover to get down to the polling station should be dead by now. You can't blame young people for not voting any longer. It's clear and obvious that they have the motivation and the will to make a difference in this world if the stakes are high enough. Now, you might say that the Scottish referendum is a one-off. You might think that, for those young people, the stakes in an election will never be higher again, and that they'll never revisit the polls because no other election will matter quite as much as the one we've just been through. That opinion overlooks the fact that every election matters. Every election is important. Every election affects our lives in all sorts of ways. It's easier to motivate young people for a vote with such a black-and-white outcome - Yes or No, stay or go. That doesn't mean that young people can't recognise the importance of other elections - they can - or that they aren't willing to make a difference in their society - they are. The failure here is on the part of the politicians.
The three main political parties in this country do not represent the views of the young. That's been obvious for a while, but it's painfully clear in this new, post-referendum UK. The young don't stay at home on polling day because they can't be bothered to vote. They stay at home because none of the choices on offer are good enough to attract their support. The political parties know that turnout is strongest among the elderly. Instead of recognising the young as a potential market, they've targeted those people who are certain to vote. They've put all their eggs in one basket - a strategy that will backfire in spectacular fashion sooner or later. You can compare it to our attitude towards oil. We know it'll run out eventually, so we concentrate all our energy on getting as much of the reduced supply as possible. That might work for a while, but it's not going to sustain you for the long run. Politics hasn't been a game interested in the long run for a very long time now. That explains why youth turnout hasn't hit the heights that it should have.
When parties pitch themselves to the electorate, what do they speak of? Often, they talk of protecting pensions. They talk of hard-working families and the cost of living for parents. These things matter, of course, but these messages betray the focus of the parties. They talk to the over-30s, and nobody else. Listen out for politicians talking of a better future 'for your children.' Some of those children have the vote too, but you'd never have guessed it by the way our leaders talk. They don't want the votes of the young, because they don't think they can win an election with them. What's the result of all this? Policies that favour baby-boomers and pensioners, two generations that have had it far easier than the generation that will follow them. It results in a society that doesn't allow young people to get free education, well-paid jobs in decent industries, or properties of their own. When young people have policies pitched to them, they will turn out to vote. 'No rise in tuition fees? They understand me - I'll vote for that.' Then, inevitably, the system shafts them, because the parties have to protect what they see as their core demographic.
Scotland has proven that the young will vote if they're given something to believe in. If a party or campaign can convince young people that they'll get a better future by voting for that party or that campaign, then of course they will go to the polling station and mark their ballot. Chasing the elderly vote won't work forever. Pretty soon, the UK parties will have to recalibrate the way that they see young people. If they can get their votes, they'll win elections - and we might even, surprise surprise, get a fairer society as a bonus.Suggest a correction