I suppose it was inevitable that the early part of 2015 should be dominated by the launch of the election campaign. Just this past week, we have had MPs from all of the major parties taking to the airwaves to make their case for your vote. In amongst all the bluster came an interesting (if not novel) nugget from Labour's Sadiq Khan, who argued that politicians from all parties are neglecting young people, and focusing excessively on winning the 'silver vote.' Actually, I think that he's right, but it's particularly interesting to consider why.
Firstly, it's no secret that older people are more likely to vote, and be registered to vote. At the last election, turnout amongst 18-24s was just 44%, compared to 76% amongst those aged 65+. Whether low participation amongst young people is a cause or a result of neglect from politicians, political parties are inevitably going to target their efforts on those most likely to vote. Ironic then that research cited by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) has found that almost 70% of 18-24 year-olds think that all people 'should' vote, suggesting a lack of inspiration as opposed to disinterest that is hampering turnout. Not being registered to vote also means that political candidates do not know who or where you are, and as a result, do not lobby you - so young people are already on the back foot.
Secondly, young people are 'presumed' to be less invested in society than older generations. Stereotypes perpetuated by society persist, and there is a particular assumption that young people just 'don't care'. And yet, we know that is simply not true. Just look at the Scottish independence referendum, where 68% of 16-24 year olds voted. And so a vicious circle is created whereby politicians continue to neglect young voters, enacting policies that are disproportionately beneficial to older voters. Take another example from this current Parliament - 50% of the welfare bill is spent on pensions, and yet no single party has dared mentioning considering that as an area to cut.
Finally, party affiliation is falling, with voters - particularly younger voters - more likely to align themselves with a particular 'cause' or 'organisation', than a political party. The allocation of young people's resources, enthusiasm, and support tends to follow their alignment, and so it should come as no surprise to see traditional parties suffer from declining engagement.
The reality is that the political landscape has changed, and young people view the political process in a distinctly different way to older voters (although I suspect this disparity is beginning to shift). Whereas traditionally the electorate has seen political parties as the best agent for change, young people (and opinion polls suggest their older peers are starting to follow this thinking) are much more likely to see charities and social enterprises as more credible and trustworthy forces for social good, and choose to channel their enthusiasm and resources into social activism (or politics) through this route instead.
Teachers that engage with young people on a daily basis perceive the latter's attitudes vary differently to the stereotypes depicted above. In fact, two-thirds of teachers believe that the current generation of young people is more concerned with social issues than those in the past, refuting theories of perpetual disengagement amongst young people.
The challenge for political parties is to turn interest in social issues into voting. That means getting young people on the electoral register, considering new ways of voting (including through digital means), and providing greater education about the role of politics in society. And, to impress on young people a sense of civic duty, which encourages them to participate in elections. Too late, of course, for this election, but surely a major priority for the next Parliament?
That said, cultural change for greater participation must not be limited to involvement in politics. To reach those young people who are genuinely disengaged, we need to let them learn about the role organisations play in their community (civic society), a real opportunity to participate, and provide them the skills they need to shape their future.
To this end, education and programmes in schools have a vital role in raising the awareness of social politics in the UK. Work experience programmes should give young people the chance to gain experience within charities. Classroom-focused learning should highlight the rise of social media and campaigning organisations in British politics, alongside and often in partnership with traditional mediums - including parties, lobbying and the media. A commitment to teaching about civic engagement must also extend beyond the ballot box.
More young leaders in society working (in shadow, as well as substantive roles) alongside their older peers wouldn't be a bad idea either. Many young people have so much to offer, but are not given opportunities because of misconceptions directly attributable to their age - and of course the reverse is also true; this is an opportunity to share knowledge and ideas with those who have clocked up years of experience. Charities - organisations that young people are keen to support - can lead the way and empower young people by ensuring that programmes are put into place to train, empower and actively involve the next generation of charity staff and trustees. Personally, I've had the opportunity to develop so much since beginning as a young trustee, and more young people should be given the chance to benefit in this way.
Both of these ideas were recommended by the cross-party 'Growing Giving' Parliamentary Inquiry, chaired by former Home Secretary David Blunkett and led by the Charities Aid Foundation. The Inquiry acknowledged the importance of early engagement and education to develop charitable giving as a habit, lessons that can easily be transferred to the field of politics and wider civic society.
The election in May is an opportunity for parties to at least set down a marker and begin to change the way that they do business, reach out to young people, and seek to establish a society in which younger citizens can have a greater opportunity to lead the way in civic engagement and social action. Is it too fanciful to hope that some within the parties will grasp this opportunity and start reaching out to younger people in a meaningful, respectful and non-patronising manner?