I was fortunately politicized at a young age. Each day after school I'd sit, legs dangling idly, at my Great Aunt's dining table, scoffing sweets as my elders read aloud the daily papers with all the political enthusiasm instinctive to the wartime generation. At home complaints about the old boys club during news time shaped a latent awareness of working class heritage and I wanted in on jokes about Margaret Thatcher, callous milk snatcher.
Meanwhile, at junior school, a natural sense of injustice after being stigmatized and outcast by a status quo slanted against fat children complemented a formative friendship with a wonderful, precocious girl who probably knew more about British imperial abuses, environmental issues and animal rights then than I do now.
All too often students take their own political consciousness for granted, but we must accept the immediate task of nurturing political enthusiasm in schools and colleges. Sixty per cent of people aged between 18 and 24 don't vote and of the 3,000 youngsters signed up to the electoral register last year by youth engagement campaign Bite the Ballot, most didn't know what the register is for before the campaign made contact. 'Apathy' is not the right word. The 'My Manifesto' campaign produced indisputable evidence that young people do care. They have a diverse range of intelligent opinions on a broad range of policy issues, exposing 'apathy' as a euphemism which deflects light from obstacles to participation. The biggest barrier right now is the absence of a basic political education which plainly informs young people of the processes of UK democracy.
School leavers can and should be contributors to public life, but barely anyone is telling them how. Until the state changes its approach, it falls upon activists like Bite the Ballot to connect youth with the political process and demonstrate that politics can be for them and by them. An ex-teacher, unsettled when his students were perplexed by the basics of UK politics, started the organization a few years back. Since, the organization has canvassed approximately 5000 opinions for a youth manifesto, launched an electoral registration campaign and has frequently taken young people to Parliament for a range of events, from youth artwork exhibitions to policy issue debates with politicians.
In doing so Bite the Ballot have inspired thousands of young people to take their role in democracy. The campaign resonated within me because they emphasised the power of political action and the importance of young voices at a time I felt profoundly disempowered and alienated from society by mental illness.
Enthusiasm for politics and democracy can infectious if we will it to be. Very soon activists at Southampton University will be taking on the Rock Enrol campaign, running workshops in local schools and colleges to engage students in a fun and relevant way. After stimulating interest and debate around political questions, there'll be electoral registration rallies. Our peers in other hubs around the country will be doing the same and - if we're fully successful - the workshops will inspire students behind the desk to cast their eyes to democracy, break free from their chairs and run their own events at school.
UK youth are inheriting serious domestic and international issues: Rising unemployment; steep austerity; rocketing university fees; marketization of the NHS; environmental calamity, and brutally repressed revolutions in which the oppressed incinerate their live bodies to protest for the vote. These are the clouds that darken our time and politics cries out for the solutions of our bright and brilliant youth. To reword a cliché, the future depends on our children, but until UK democracy makes overtures to them it falls upon us to be the difference.
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