Nobody really tells you what to expect when you start campaigning. This is my first year campaigning for the Conservatives, and getting time talking with the electorate is an adventure in itself. The anti-voter who argues no matter what you present, the young none-voter who isn't interested and the older voter who will talk to you for a long while and ask why you want to campaign for such a mean party. The final voter is my favourite by far; usually you get a cup of tea and an offer of introduction to their gorgeous granddaughter. But the most important are the young, who are by far the least likely to vote and have been on a downward trend for the last 40 years.
A few months ago in one of Ealing and Acton's more humble neighbourhoods, I spoke with a 17 year-old school leaver and an 18 year-old woman heading to University to study art. The two people couldn't be more different, yet both declared their lack of desire to vote. The young man said; "no-one cares about us, so why vote?". He's right, and I told him so. It was for one simple reason; young people don't vote and so they don't really effect elections. "Imagine" I told him, "If everyone under 34 voted at the next election. You'd choose the next Prime Minister".
The young woman on the other hand, was so disengaged by politics, she could only say "I'm not interested in anything". I eventually got her onto a subject of tuition fees, saying to her that she must care about the £9,000 a year of debt. She said that it wasn't that she didn't care about this, but simply "no-one cares about people our age and they'll just dump the costs of the future on to us".
I don't think I could put it better myself.
Let's look at the voting stats from the 2010 election.
The message in this table is clear; the older you get, the more likely you are to vote and the more likely you are to vote Tory. Conservatives have delivered tax breaks around property, marriage and protected pensions, keeping these older voters on side.
Labour's terrifying obsession with the NHS is targeted directly at the older voter, who have become used to ever growing services from an NHS which is widely regarded as being under extreme pressure from the an ageing population. Both parties are of course under pressure from Ukip, also very likely to attract an older voter. One Ukip supporter told me "we WANT it to be like the 70s again"; there aren't many 18-34 year olds who feel the same. There may be a few young UKIP supporters who want the "bloody Poles and Lithuanians out", but in my experience most people under 30 enjoy the company of Europeans working hard in Britain (most people my age will have worked with them) and I don't hear any men moaning about the Polish and Lithuanian women.
So where does that leave the young voter? Is anyone interested in them?
Well, the Lib Dems did very well from the youth vote due to their policy of free higher education, likewise with the SNP whose additional policy of lowering the voting age to 16 was successful. Now the Lib Dems have reneged on this policy, which most young voters admitted was one of the only reasons to vote LD, these voters have few places to go. In all likelihood, they won't vote, although Labour's recent proposition to cap tuition fees at £6,000 may swing a few.
The coalition itself have done little for young people. Pensioners are spared the pain of council tax while discounts to young, poor working families have been cut from central government by 10% this year alone. Winter fuel allowance is not means tested, meaning many wealthy pensioners receive allowances they don't need. Some give the money to charity, but many will spend it as an entitlement. Ensuring vulnerable pensioners are protected remains important, but simply throwing money to people because they are retired is mad.
Parties who want a future will have to work harder to engage Britain's young voters, who feel it is unfair for the rest of society to dump debt and benefits onto them. Strategically, it also makes very little sense to spend so much time and effort on older voters. The law of diminishing returns means getting an increase beyond the existing high level of older voters will cost an ever increasing amount for a reduced return. Attracting benefit from the 56% of 18-24 year olds who don't vote will require far less effort. Simply recognising they exist might help.
We are mortgaging the future of Britain's young on a desire to attract older voters and it is the young who will be the ones paying for all this for many years ahead, not forgetting an ever increasing number of young people paying rent to these pensioners who have moved their money into buying buy-to-let properties to further secure their own futures. Questions on how we provide a service from the NHS to our ageing population remain unanswered, but indebting our young further is not the answer.
We must offer our young improved opportunities, visionary investment into excellent education and training establishments and a business policy which encourages the employment of young people with little experience or training. It is time our political parties toughened up and started saying "no" to the older generation and more time saying "yes" to our youngsters.