THE BLOG

Parliament Week: How to Engage With the Disillusioned Youth

21/11/2014 12:58 GMT | Updated 19/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Parliament Week (14-20 November) and its organisers are striving to reach out to society's most disengaged. There's no shying away from the gargantuan task at hand; if the research is to be taken seriously nearly all the signs are pointing in the wrong direction.

But a collective shift in attitude across the political system has come at the right time, with many from the NUS to Parliamentarians themselves ramping up their efforts, suggesting success in this campaign might be within reach.

But what does the challenge involve? To find out the Huffington Post UK spoke with two figures, Mariam Dawood and Alvin Carpio, hoping to contribute towards boosting youth engagement ahead of next year's election.

Mariam joined the Labour party at the age of 15 - frightfully young one may suggest - but age, she argues, is certainly no barrier to politics. Now working closely with councillors in East London, she has been elected to a number of posts, including Youth Officer, since first joining.

"As a democratic socialist, my views matched those of Labour and due to the inclusive nature of the party I did not feel my age was a hindrance," she says. "I joined because for me, Labour was - and still is - a party that believes opportunity should be in the hands of the many, not the few."

As a member of a political party, Mariam finds herself in thin company. Today, party membership is relatively scarce, with analysis showing a steep fall in numbers for the Labour Party, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats since the 1980s.

The same cannot be said for the SNP, however, which has seen its membership soar post-referendum. The Green Party too has seen its fair share of growth. What does this say about the traditional parties?

"It could show that British politics is becoming more European where multiple parties are competing for power," Mariam suggests. "Historically there have been a number of single-issue protest parties that have almost vanished now."

Single-issue protest parties such as Ukip, for instance? Their rise to prominence is not to be taken lightly, as the Conservatives have come to realise. Mariam points again to Europe.

"Whilst immigration is a controversial issue, support for right wing, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties is a feature of European democracy. Ukip's rise in popularity is not unique in Europe. In France, the National Front experienced success and the Danish People's Party had an almost identical experience."

It is often suggested that politicians tend to ignore the needs of the young, because the young are less likely to vote. The suggestion is that the resultant policy may lead to even fewer youngsters turning up at the subsequent election.

Mariam believes that people should vote out of duty rather than just to further their own interests. She says: "This would avoid the unfortunate vicious circle many young people are caught up in, where they are less likely to vote as they feel unrepresented, whilst they may have been better represented had they voted."

Alvin Carpio, meanwhile, pulls apart the logical fallacies in what he calls the 'Russell Brand brand' of politics.

""Don't vote. It won't make a difference." That's what anti-politics naysayers are proclaiming from the rooftops. But that sentiment, although political in itself, threatens the future of our exemplary democracy and kills the belief that our generation can create change through politics."

Alvin is a member of the Uprising Alumni Advisory Board, and currently works for the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, which campaigns for a shift towards a culture of evidence-based policy in managing young offenders.

"Can we inspire a new generation of young voters? The problem is, inspiration without delivery is like an iPhone without a charger - it's useless. That's why we've got to fight tooth and nail against the Russell Brand brand of politics which unthinkingly tells young people not to vote - we do this by arguing for the value of democratic participation in the public realm."

The notion that people refuse to participate when they feel their vote won't make a difference is perfectly exemplified by the staggering levels of political engagement, and an 86 per cent turnout, in the Scottish referendum - in which the people, evidently, felt their vote did count.

"The Scottish Referendum showed that young people do care about politics, and will vote, but it was in many ways an exceptional case," Alvin says.

"This was a single 'yes' or 'no' vote, with clear camps either side, with leaders who made their cases over a two year campaign about the future of Great Britain, a historic vote that rightfully received much media coverage."

"We cannot do this for every single issue and piece of legislation: our country would cease to function. It's why we have a democracy where we vote for people to represent our communities and get on with the business of politics."

But, as he makes clear, one shining revelation of the referendum was that it demonstrated the merits in handing 16- and 17-year-olds the right to have their say.

"Evidence from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee shows that giving 16 year olds the vote not only increases youth engagement, but also increases voter engagement more generally."

"It is not a criminal offence for a person under 18 to smoke, and the minimum age for enlistment in the UK armed forces is 16. If we allow our young people to take up the responsibility of bravely fighting to protect our country, and if we allow our young people to taste what are societal vices, we should give them the right to enact the virtuous act of voting."

As Parliament Week draws to a close, both its organisers and prominent figures, like Mariam and Alvin, will soon turn their attentions to May 2015, and the challenges that are sure to arise.

"The worst response is to give up on politics," Alvin says.

"Events like Parliament Week remind us of the great achievements of Parliament such as the passing of minimum wage legislation, universal healthcare, and the characters who have led within the halls of Parliament. Figures who have stood the test of time like Winston Churchill, and have inspired generations. Parliament Week gives young people the opportunity to learn about it."

"The challenge now will be to make politics and active citizenry an everyday thing: let's have people engaging with Parliament throughout their lives! Parliament Life anyone? Doesn't really have the same ring as 'Parliament Week', but you get my point."