To engage the young, political parties must dare more democracy

One of the most striking features of recent British general elections is the fall in voter turnout. Since 1997, the number of people voting has plummeted from around 74% in each of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, to an average of only 60% in the 2000s. This trend is most visible amongst younger voters: turnout fell to below 40% in the 18-25 group in 2001 and 2005. Young people are not apathetic but are turned off by electoral politics in its current form.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 showed that young people can become more engaged, not only in voting but also campaigning, but we can safely predict that this will not happen in Britain. Why?

First, politicians do not address issues of concern for young people. Let’s take the subject of university education. Over 40% of young people now go on to higher education (HE), but this policy area has barely been discussed. In fact, it has taken a pro-active campaign by the National Union of Students—to name and shame prospective MPs who support an increase in fees—to even bring HE onto the agenda.

Second, political parties have lost much of their representative capacity. Recent decades have witnessed the individualisation of society in general and young people in particular in terms of values, life-styles and types of political participation. Young people have more diverse interests and participate in democracy through more diverse means, for example demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq or support for Fair Trade products. On the other side of the equation, in their efforts to respond to the demands of the 24-hour media, political parties have become more hierarchical. As a consequence, policy making has become increasingly shut off from ordinary party members.

Third, the first-past-the-post electoral system in Britain does not encourage parties to engage with young people. Since parties’ resources are heavily concentrated in the battle for marginal constituencies, most people in the country are unlikely to come into personal contact with a politician or even a party activist, even in the run-up to the general election. This is particularly true for young people, who, because, they are statistically less likely to vote are viewed as less important by the political marketing experts who now dominate the campaign.

Finally, of course, Britain does not have a politician like Obama. Despite the energising performance of Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, in the first prime ministerial debates, no British politician has yet captured the views and aspirations of young people in this country.

What can we do? Well, certainly increasing political literacy through, for example, improved citizenship education, would be one answer. But the main problem lies with the politicians and the institutions. In short, they must ‘dare more democracy’. They must open up their parties to new social groups. They must reinvigorate local democracy—where people are more likely to succeed in their political endeavours—by granting it more power. They must get involved and actively mobilise young people throughout the whole of the electoral cycle.

Here is one telling experience. Not too long ago I participated in a conference on political participation for academics and politicians at Westminster, where one senior politician complained that he had never been invited to give a talk at a school. That was pathetic. If politicians cannot be bothered to get engaged through their own initiative, how can regular citizens be expected to return the favour?