According to statistics compiled by Ipsos MORI, only 43% of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2015 British General Election, compared to 78% of over 65 year olds. Similarly, projected statistics show that only 64% of 18-24 year olds voted in the EU Referendum, compared to a huge 90% of the 65+ demographic. The difference between the voter turnout rates suggests that there is something wrong somewhere within the political system, why do so few young people take an active role within our democratic society and vote? Despite the disparity between these figures I want to stress the opinion that young people in the United Kingdom are interested in politics, they simply feel unengaged with the British political system, causing this democratic indifference. Despite making up 20% of the population and 100% of the future, politicians are largely uninterested in attempting to engage the demographic of 18-24 year olds. If young people are an incredibly ignored demographic within the political realm, how should young people be expected to maintain an interest in the system and use their vote? Clearly something must be done, young people are the future of our country and political system, and without their engagement we face a worrying future of democratic apathy.
Unlike other recent campaigns which have attempted to use social media to target young voters, such as Bite the Ballot, 45ForThe45th takes a unique and different approach to youth engagement, sending a group of carefully selected '45ers' across the Atlantic Ocean to participate in the ongoing 2016 Presidential elections. The process is a simple two-fold one, the '45ers' would travel to the United States, working on the Presidential campaign of our choice, in order to soak up American political enthusiasm and take home ideas and inspiration to apply to British politics. The second strand of the process is currently in motion, this being the legacy report. The legacy report is a way for all of the '45ers' to amalgamate their findings, enthusiasm and inspiration collected during our time on the campaign trail in American into one comprehensive document. This document will quite simply be recommendations for the government and political parties with how they should be tackling the very real and prominent problem of youth disengagement. These findings will be displayed to politicians, journalists and the general public during an official 45ForThe45th event in January.
It cannot be denied that there is an infectious energy and excitement surrounding American politics, particularly the 2016 Presidential election. The American youth voter turnout generally surpasses the UK, with 48% of youths voting in the 2008 American election. Whilst the figure doesn't seem that remarkable, this is a huge disparity of millions of young voters, compared to the 43% of 18-24 year olds that voted in the 2015 British elections. Clearly then there is something to be learned from our transatlantic neighbours. With the current high profile election involving the possibility of the first female president or a right-wing controversial celebrity, these records and statistics look like they are going to be annihilated, and youth voter turnout will once again be on the rise in the United States. We wanted to gain an understanding of what it is that makes American politics much more high profile, accessible and engaging to the youth population, inspiring ideas for what the United Kingdom government could be doing. The US Presidential elections reach dizzying heights of public awareness and it is this atmosphere we wanted to absorb on our travels.
We aimed to observe as many methods of voting as possible so we began our journey in Iowa, to experience the caucus approach to voting, from which the entire presidential election would commence. We arrived in Iowa three days prior to the election and having never visited the state before or experienced any campaigning in America it was an entirely alien experience. Our campaigning involved going door to door to remind people to caucus and to attempt to convince any undecided voters to vote for Hillary Clinton (my chosen campaign). What I found most striking about my first experience of American campaigning was the persistence of the campaign teams. An individual could never be reminded to vote and be communicated with too many times. This approach clearly has its positives and negatives. As a young British person who has never been visited by a door to door campaigner or been reminded to vote in this way, I can see the clear positives in this approach as a way of engaging individuals and increasing voter turnout. However, by speaking to American voters, persistence often failed to have the desired engaging approach, people began to associate campaigners and thus politics with a feeling of annoyance and intrusiveness. The method of persistence however clearly provides a stark comparison to British campaigning and politics, a lack of which being something that has left the demographic of young people feeling unengaged.
The caucus process was additionally an eye opening experience, particularly the community nature and chaos surrounding the voting process. In the United Kingdom voting is an entirely personal process which is seldom discussed, a disengaging approach which is accountable for the failure to engage young people. Caucusing is far more time consuming than a conventional voting method because it involves an open, public voting process with active discussion about candidates. The voting method emphasised the family unit, families arriving together to show their support for their candidate, introducing children into the political realm from a young age, this encouraging future engagement. The process of convincing entirely reinforced this community spirit, you could hear people pleading for their neighbours to convert their vote to their own preferred candidate purely through personal connections, simply because they were their neighbour. Thus we found that politics in Iowa is a widely discussed realm, people are far less reserved about announcing support for their candidate than people in the United Kingdom.
Through this public, community approach it is easy to understand the higher levels of political engagement in the United States. With active discussions about politics seemingly more likely to take place, it is clear how young people would be more likely to have an understanding of their democratic system and thus utilise their vote. The caucus approach provided a stark contrast to the more private and reserved style of voting within the UK, a possible explanation for youth political apathy. However, there are also obvious negatives to this voting method, it is a lengthy, time consuming and inaccurate method of voting.
Following experiencing a caucus in Iowa, we followed the campaign trail to New Hampshire to observe the more conservative primary method of voting. New Hampshire was an entirely different political environment than Iowa, most striking was the personal nature of the campaigns in New Hampshire. From speaking to American citizens it seemed to be entirely normal to have met the candidates and even have entertained them in their own homes, a concept that would seem entirely alien to voters in the United Kingdom. This was a level of personal politics entirely unprecedented to us, the ease of meeting and seeing the candidates speak providing a possible explanation for the increased political engagement. The possibility of having a personal connection with the candidates seemed to be the driving forces of many peoples interests in the campaigns, an approach British politicians could adopt to reduce democratic apathy amongst young voters. Residents in New Hampshire were actually surprised that the '45ers' hadn't met all of the candidates yet. Is this personal politics something that British MPs could embrace in a quest to increase youth engagement in politics?
There are clearly many lessons we can learn from the United States when it comes to youth engagement in politics, ideas 45ForThe45th hope to introduce to the political parties through their legacy report, and will prevent a future of democratic apathy. We need to take this undeniable and palpable energy of American politics and use it to capture the millions of missing votes, caused by youth disengagement. Young people simply feel disengaged in the system and feel that the political realm is not open to themselves. Thus we need to translate the energy surrounding American politics, captured during our trips to our transatlantic neighbours, and bring this energy to the British political stage to ensure a future of continued democracy.
The '45ers' will travel to Florida in November during the final week of the Presidential Election to experience the excitement around American politics once more, compiling our findings upon our return in order to produce our legacy report which will outline our suggestions for British political parties as to how they can increase youth engagement.