‘Don’t bother voting’ said Russell Brand on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman back in October 2013. The interview, nearing 11 million views, captures a pervasive sense of political weariness among the British electorate. Brand makes pertinent points that elegantly encapsulate the evils of democracy in the 21st century. Many people are buying into the whole ‘what’s the point of voting?’ mindset. However, whilst the flames of disillusionment spread like wildfire across the country, it must lead to action, not apathy.
Growing cynicism isn’t surprising
If there is a single age-demographic which becomes almost obsolete on the day of a British general election, it’s young people. With the recession hitting them the hardest, a sharp rise in tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance), and threats to young people’s benefits if the Tories are re-elected, growing cynicism isn’t surprising. In the 2010 general election, turnout among the 18 to 24 age-demographic was a disappointing 44%, a figure unlikely to improve on May 7th this year. This is the same age-demographic that has organised enthusing protests and inspirational social media movements unlike any previous generation. Take for example the ‘#CopsOffCampus’ campaign, where a video capturing police brutality at the University of Warwick went viral overnight, with over 500 students gathering to protest the very next day. The UK Youth Parliament is a more formal example of a new wave of empowered young citizens debating annually in Parliamentary chambers, planning local and national campaigns. Surprisingly, many of the members aren’t even old enough to vote yet. University campuses are full of thriving political societies, founded and run by student passion, and are playgrounds for discussion, analysis, and free expression.
Have you ever seen the elderly doing anything like that? Well, the thing is they don’t need to. They use an old trick called the ballot box.
Young people have never had it so bad
The voter turnout in the 2010 election among the over-65s was around 75%. It may not come so much of a surprise to see the Winter Fuel Allowance and freedom pass being intact after 5 years of austerity and hardly an inch shaved off of the pensions bill, which constitutes over a half of the welfare budget. The true objective of any party in government is to eventually secure its re-election. With testing economic times, policy-makers must strike a careful balance between spending cuts and their own survival. It would only make sense, then, to load more of the burden onto groups that won’t punish them as much at the ballot box, among which is the young age-demographic. Of course this doesn’t imply that the elderly have it easy in these austere times, but in this post-War era, young people have never had it so bad.
The youth of today are perhaps the most politically active age-demographic, and if it was to combine the ‘alternative means’ [of change] which Brand espouses with a greater turnout at the ballot box, change can be amplified. Some argue: “What’s the point, all the parties are the same!” Then it’s probably time to look for other parties to vote for (ruling out UKIP as a serious alternative). Even if these parties don’t gain substantial power in May, primarily due to a voting system which favours the main parties, the agenda will begin to shift as parties try to chase voters on the periphery.
It will require the political class to start re-engaging with young people
Moira Swinbank, in a Daily Telegraph article, quotes a BBC report, which estimated that 194 seats could be lost by just a 5% shift in votes in 2015. The 18-24 age-demographic constitutes just under 14% of the electorate; so there is huge potential for young people to determine the outcome of the election in May. Young people have proved their ability to engage responsibly and powerfully in the face of injustice. In 2012, Barack Obama would not have been re-elected if it weren’t for his share of votes among the 18 to 29 age-bracket. Voting won’t resolve all of the economic and social ills facing Britain but it should not be underestimated as a tool of great leverage. Challenging corporate hegemony, ecological meltdown and existing injustice and inequality will require every possible avenue of engagement to be fully realised. But more importantly, it will require the political class to start re-engaging with young people, earning their trust and respecting them as the future of this country and indeed the world.
Young people have a fresh perspective to offer
Today, the most socially connected generation to ever walk the planet is also the most underrepresented demographic in party manifestos. This doesn’t make sense. Young people have a fresh perspective to offer, and a potent combination of progressive ideas and innovative means to inspire real change. Yet, their power at the ballot box will remain dormant unless they embrace electoral activism over defeatism.