With three months to go, both my Students' Union and university, with the aid of the NUS, are pushing voter registration and general political engagement hard. Part of this involves me standing in the library foyer every other Tuesday, attempting to entice students to check whether they're registered to vote come May.
Quite often I'm asked 'how do I know if I'm registered?' which is understandable given the recent changes to voter registration, or, more worryingly, 'what election?' But perhaps worst of all I'm sometimes told 'oh, no, I don't do that voting thing', as if it was an activity only a certain sort of person engaged in... which indeed might be becoming the case. My pre-prepared rebuttal is that they should at least register to be in with a chance of politicians gearing some policy towards them, and whilst true, it really shouldn't be.
Ever since 18 year olds were handed the vote in 1969, the youngest segment of the electorate has been under-represented at the voting booth. Youth election turn-out tends to follow the same peaks and troughs as the rest of the public, albeit several percentage points lower (at least), suggesting that, whilst still affected by whatever is encouraging or discouraging the general public, there is always an extra something that keeps young people away from the voting booth. In 2010, less than half of us turned out to vote, with similar figures being predicted for this time around too.
The brutal result of this is that, as young people, we have consistently been ignored. Increasingly I find myself being asked by opinion polls and articles- 'have politicians done enough for young people?' and we need look no further than the actions of the Establishment to answer this. Changes to voter registration that have led to unprecedented numbers of students falling off the electoral register coupled with violent repression of student protests and marches reveals an Establishment terrified of a new generation beginning to find its voice, and so it should be.
Young people have borne the brunt of austerity because politicians knew they could get away with it, that there would be no repercussions come election day, and so the idea of a newly empowered youth movement has caught them off-guard. Tuition fees, scrapping JSA for 18-21 year olds, youth unemployment, attempting to sell off the student loan book... No wonder Cameron suddenly found himself "too busy" to take part in the Leaders Live discussion.
We tend to quietly accept that lower youth turn out inevitably means politicians will prioritise pensions over pedagogy, but isn't it time we challenged that?
Firstly, we need to start accepting and encouraging alternate forms of political expression- recognising protests and marches and the passion that drives them, rather than kettling them. Enriching and utilising social media and e-petitions instead of belittling them as the work of 'keyboard warriors'. This is how many young people feel comfortable in engaging (and when you look at PMQ's, you can't blame them), and we should be encouraging, not disparaging that. Many young people do care and engage, it's just not always in the traditional ways.
Secondly, we need to be emulating my SU by pushing voter registration for young people as much as we possibly can, as well as finding new and exciting ways of engaging them in the questions and debates that surround politics. But perhaps most importantly of all, we need to reimagine the point of policies and manifesto's.
Only in a country that has been stripped bare by neo liberalism could we have settled on such a warped view of elections and voting. Policies aren't there to win votes. The point of a manifesto is to offer a bold and alternate vision for the future, for a party to declare what it is fighting for, what it thinks the country needs, regardless of how many votes it will win. Colin Hay talks of the 'marketisation' of elections, and how it has reduced British politics to little more than a brawl for the middle ground, devoid of ideology or passion. His message is simple: when you treat the electorate like market share to be won over, then you attempt to craft a policy base that has the sole intent of winning votes, with watered down policies and non-committal rhetoric ten a penny. The problem with this approach is, when you attempt to appeal to almost everyone, you end up appealing to almost no one.
We simply must recapture a sense of power, ideology, and imagination in our politics. It is only by doing this do we begin to ensure all demographics are considered in policy, rather than having only the concerns of those that actually vote catered for-finally saving us from our vicious cycle
Whilst I still fully expect to be met by indifference by many on my campus next Tuesday, there is also a resurgence in youth politics that is starting to come into its own. Look at the fight for free tuition in Germany, the youth engagement in the Scottish referendum, and the 10,000 strong march in London last November demanding free education. It is in parties like the Green Party that young people are finding a home, a party that is unafraid to offer alternative policies that are derided by the paid and bought for press. It was the hope of young people that afforded the Lib Dems power in 2010, and it is their fury that has the potential to topple them and their coalition partners in May.
I see a generation weary of business of usual. I see a generation that knows what it wants and is beginning to get mobilised and fight for it. I see a generation set to topple the old order, banish the archaic and the corrupt and the broken, and usher in a progressive future. I see a generation set to pull us back from the brink and change the world.
Westminster sees it too, and nothing could terrify it more.