Politicians don't care about young people. A cursory examination of the recent electioneering budget does a pithy job of confirming that. It's a budget for people with savings and pensions. In other words, old people and rich people and old rich people. The young barely get a look in. A few crumbs - some more apprenticeships, of debatable value - have been thrown their way. And that's it. So why do politicians feel that they can ignore the plight of this 'jilted generation'? It's not as if the young weren't hit hard by the recession. In fact, it's been demonstrated that it is they who have been most affected by the evil combination of falling real wages and rising costs of essential goods. A study by the excellent Intergenerational Foundation has shown that the median gross weekly wages of workers aged 18 to 21 have fallen by nearly 20% in real terms since 1997. Compare that to workers in their fifties, whose earnings have increased by 25% over the same period. This is before we even consider the 900,000 young people who are currently unemployed. Figures get massaged, of course, but the reality is that 38,000 fewer are in work now compared with this time last year.
All of this makes it blindingly obvious to me that young people need help. But politicians won't give it. If they have a list of priorities then young people are way, way down. Are they being short-sighted by wilfully neglecting this generation? Perhaps not. Because politics is about power and power is afforded through support and support is expressed through voting.
According to data from the last general election in 2010, 76% of over-65s voted, while only 44% aged 18-24 exercised their democratic right. Forty years ago, about 75% of the UK voted, and there was no such disparity between the generations. In the 2013 local elections, an estimated 32% of 18-24 year-olds voted, compared with 72% of over-65s. What we are seeing, and have been seeing for many years, is a steady and worrying decline in the numbers of young people voting. It's not a huge leap to suppose that this ballot box slump correlates with an increase in political disenfranchisement amongst the young.
The unavoidable truth is that this unequal turnout gives older (usually richer) voters a disproportionate influence on elections. Furthermore, as young voter numbers dwindle, so too does the incentive for politicians to care about the issues most relevant to them. Guy Lodge, of the think tank IPPR, accurately describes this as a "vicious cycle of disaffection and under-representation". In January Paul Blomfield, the Labour MP for Sheffield Central, posed a question which echoed this: "In a week when the prime minister has been offering pledges to pensioners, who vote in large numbers, we might ask why young people have faced the worst of this government's policies - with rising long-term youth unemployment, abolition of Education Maintenance Allowances and trebling of university fees. Maybe it would have been different if they voted in larger numbers."
I passionately believe that we have to stall this slump in the youth vote. And then reverse it. We are in real danger of letting down an entire generation. We need to force politicians to care by hitting them where it hurts - the ballot box. Which brings me onto Russell Brand. This is a man who has charm to burn and an enviable eloquence. He clearly cares a great deal about people and politics. He also wields considerable influence - he has the ear and attention of young people in a way that politicians simply don't. And that is why, when I hear him talking about his refusal to vote, I flinch. Such an attitude from a man who is not only extremely bright but also hugely persuasive is incredibly dangerous. Whilst his desire for a revolution that births a fairer, egalitarian, socialist-state utopia is incontrovertibly admirable, he has, by his own admission, no concrete ideas on how to achieve such a condition. Until such a plan is formulated, it seems to me that the only way to achieve change is by voting. It is the electorate which is responsible for installing the people that we see in parliament. They may not be perfect, and the differentiation between the parties may be cloudy, but it's obviously worth figuring out who you believe will best serve your interests. And then voting for them. The last thing that young people need right now is to be further encouraged away from the polling stations. That will marginalise them and their needs even more.
In addition, I am an advocate of democracy. Or at least, I believe that democracy is the best existing system to run a country or community. Russell may consider me naïve or even complicit with his hated 'elites' but I also refute his claim about voting: "We know it's not going to make any difference. We know that already." To me, that is defeatist. If we can engage young people with the political process, if we can get them to the voting stations, then we will, almost by definition, hand them more power. Politicians will have to listen to their concerns and their problems because they will want their votes. So the question has to be - how can politicians and political parties reach these disaffected young people?
Which brings me to BBC Three's Free Speech. Despite our loyal audience - and it's not lost on me that many people reading this won't know what Free Speech is, let alone have ever seen it - as its host, it will not surprise you to hear that I would like more people to watch and get involved with it. A transparent agenda? No, actually - I urge you to believe that this hunger for a larger audience is not self-serving or motivated by vanity. It is because I truly believe that the show is important. Free Speech was borne out of a few successful Question Time spin-offs geared towards, watched and attended by, young people. The programme has slowly moved away from its illustrious father - we are trying to create an increasingly fluid and dynamic show, more befitting of its intended audience. Gone are the familiar banks of seating, replaced by what we are hoping is more akin to a bear pit. Somewhere that young people can really vent. Somewhere that the panel cannot hide.
Now I am not for one moment saying that a show like this, on its own, can be responsible for stoking the political fires of a generation. But it is perhaps the only dedicated forum on TV (for now!) for young people to get their voices heard and their questions answered, or at least artfully dodged, by politicians and decision-makers. Our social media team ensures that the subjects that we debate on the show are the subjects that our online audience want to be debated. We are trying to get the audience to shape the show, to avoid the far too common feeling of 'adults' prescribing what they think young people should be talking about.
The value of allowing our audience of 16-30 year olds the opportunity to speak to the people on our panel, many of whom are in positions of power, and be listened to by them, is clear. Not only will it hopefully force the politicians to heed what they are saying and acknowledge what is upsetting them, but also it will foster a sense within the young people themselves that they can speak up and be heard. That in turn will, I hope, go some way towards getting them to vote. To exert the influence that is rightfully theirs at the ballot box. To make sure current and future Chancellors of the Exchequer care about them. If they don't, then politics and politicians will continue to ignore them. You can be certain of that.
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