What to do about the yoof problem in politics? Every week another worrying statistic, another urgent initiative. According to the Hansard Society only 12% of young people plan to vote at the General Election. In response, Bite the Ballot, a worthy initiative, is travelling the country registering young people to vote.
Voter apathy looms large over our democracy and politicians are right to warn of an impending crisis. But, despite all the hand wringing and something-must-be-done rhetoric, the gap between Westminster and the millennial generation is widening all the time. Not least because the problem has been badly misdiagnosed. It's not young people that are disengaged with politics. It's politicians that are disengaged from young people.
In my day to day work at Cybersalon, a think tank on digital futures, we work with countless young digital activists and none of them would be caught dead anywhere near a traditional political party. They have no time for the fusty politics 1.0 model, but you could never call them apathetic.
At a recent Bitcoin meet-up in London, for example, over 1,000 digital activists all under 25 gathered to rail against a corrupt banking system and discuss the free money movement between people that bypasses banks. They are united by a hunger for change that people used to go into politics to bring about. Born out of the Occupy Wall Street disillusionment with unreformable banks, the Bitcoin online currency is a growing phenomenon now being debated by policymakers at Davos.
There are many other movements being driven by highly politically engaged young people with a big appetite for collaboration. From the Open Right Group's fight against censorship, the Wiki movement to share free knowledge (5-7,000 editors in the UK, mainly under 30, some as young as 13), NUS campaigns, the 'die in' cyclist protest, which saw around 1,000 mainly young cyclists protest against Transport for London last November, Greenpeace and Women against Page 3, which is supported by many secondary school girls, there is evidence everywhere you look of politically engaged young people.
But the problem is that mainstream politics doesn't speak their language. Our politics has been battered by a digital tornado and yet it stubbornly refuses to upgrade from the slo-mo pace of politics 1.0. Like the web of the early '90s millennials watch electoral democracy downloading excruciatingly slowly over the early bandwidth of 9600 bps, making squeaking noises as if it was coming down the thin phone cable to your old Commodore 64, over the Hayes modem.
It's crying out for an upgrade, a new platform, but there's deep-rooted resistance. There's even been talk of forcing young people to vote by introducing first time compulsory voting. But this isn't the answer, as millennials would boycott it in droves.
To avoid the increasing schism between the analogue government and its increasingly digital voters, there is a need for urgent action and a thorough investigation of what tools and concepts we should be developing to drag the system into the 21st century.
Instead of sinking back into the Westminster bubble and a political process that's barely changed in a thousand years, we should be looking more seriously at crowdsourcing select policies and using a political Kickstarter model where residents are given a virtual share of the budget to determine local regeneration priorities. We should be learning from the early success of Washington start-up Ruck.us, which attempts to improve democracy by giving an outlet for political expression outside of the binary two-party system. We should also embrace the open data expansion and growth of civic hackathons that bring together software developers, citizens and entrepreneurs to use technology to improve their communities. And encourage digital participation in creating local manifestos. Imagine a series of local wiki-manifestos created collaboratively to set the political priorities of communities. Above all we've got to harness the creativity of young people to improve our democracy.
Politics is about competing ideas, but above all it's about communication. And communication has to evolve. From quill pens and gramophone records to apps and social media we've seen huge advances. Yet politics continues to stand still. If it continues in this vein, ploughing a narrow, antiquated furrow, Westminster will get more and more remote. At the moment many people are barely listening, but soon they won't be able to hear anything at all.