Opening last year’s Conference, Conservative Party Chairman Lord Feldman acknowledged the visible anti-Tory presence on the streets of Manchester. “We may have a majority in Parliament” he said, “but what about those who didn’t vote for us? And what about those who did not vote at all?” Feldman was acknowledging the need for the Conservatives to attract a more diverse membership. Wider engagement was needed – engagement akin to the review into the issue that he launched following the General Election which, he noted, had managed to connect with 60,000 people.
There was a significant caveat however. Who were the 60,000 people involved in this review into the future of the party? They were the very white, very male and very, very male party membership that Feldman admitted needed diversifying thus rendering the process narrow, at best. Naval-gazing exercises such as these that sum up why so many people remain disengaged with politics. It demonstrates that there is significant room for improvement when it comes to politicians and parties communicating and engaging with the wider electorate.
Perhaps it’s worth clarifying what I mean by engagement. Political engagement for the individual doesn’t end at sending a few tweets or reading the papers. It doesn’t even necessarily mean voting. As this ad from the Electoral Commission explains, political engagement is about knowing that politics affects just about everything, the arguments involved and how you can help change things.
Young people are regularly bracketed within the ‘disengaged’ masses. In the run up to the last General Election it was fashionable for politicians and columnists to suggest that young people were uninterested and disengaged. This wasn’t the case then and isn’t the case now.
I know this to be true because I meet engaged young people all the time. In fact, it’s the main reason I helped found YoungThoughts.org to give young people a voice about the issues that matter to them and prove that we, as a generation, are engaged. As the success of this site proves, it turns out, when given the platform and opportunity to do so, young people are eager to do just this.
But more important here is the common thread that comes up almost every time I speak to young people. Whether it’s those who have voted or those who make nuanced cases as to why they shouldn’t, almost every young person I meet tells me that most politicians don’t care about them or the issues they care about. There is a grudging acceptance that ours’ will be the generation that pays more for our education, earns less and pays the price to fix the now-outdated intergenerational contract that currently props up the welfare state in favour of the elderly. What instigates anger is when this is taken for granted by older generations; when university fees rise but the triple-lock on pensions remains in place; when rents continually rise and those pensioners who own property get ‘Freedom Passes’; when we are labelled lazy and unambitious by politicians looking to secure the more dependable votes from older generations.
Arguably, in the same way a disconnect between politicians and voters about immigration spurred on UKIP, the Green Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have capitalised on the disenchantment of the young in society. While he may not have the support of his MPs or, in fact, be an effective opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn does at least attempt to listen and respond to the issues that young people care about: housing, higher education and skills and the environment. Moreover, he does it in a way that involves them. That’s why he’s loved so much.
Perhaps politicians can learn from Corbyn. Of course, that doesn’t mean offering pipe-dreams like world peace, but it does mean actually having a discussion on issues that affect young people. If a politician doesn’t think universal higher education is a practical idea then they should both be able and willing to explain why this is the case rather than avoiding the subject with soundbites and pre-rehearsed lines.
They say history is written by those who show up. As we know from pensions policy, the same applies to politics. It’s easy to argue that if young people want to become a political force they need to show up and vote, however this misses the point. With an ever aging population the ability of young people to make their voice heard will continue to be drowned out regardless of whether they show up. So what to do? To effect real change political parties must recognise their duty to engage young people and keep them engaged for life. Becoming politically engaged only when one reaches adulthood inevitably slashes the chances of that individual voting for policies that help young people. The cycle must be broken now – not just for the sake of young people now and in the future, but for our democracy also.
James Thomas Bonner
Follow James – @JamesTBonner