the importance of voting
Young people could sway the result of May's general election in the UK, so it's more necessary than ever to engage with politics and make our voices heard.
In less than 50 days, the United Kingdom will hold a general election. You can tell it's coming because David Cameron has begun to assume human form long enough to appear on the Six O'Clock News, talking about things like Shredded Wheat and how he won't serve a third term as Prime Minister (you could go even further and rule out a second if you like, Dave).
Even sooner, April 20th, is the final day for voter registration; the last chance to stick your name and address on the electoral register and make sure you have your say on May 7th. The whole process takes under five minutes - less time than, say, Jeremy Clarkson will wait for a steak - yet millions of young people still haven't done it, and it's dictating the political agenda.
Politicians aren't interested in the people who stay at home on polling day. That's why youth services have been cut, tuition fees tripled and EMA payments scrapped, whilst pensioners have kept hold of their free bus passes and TV licenses (and their pensions, which make up half of our benefits spending). Those benefits haven't been ring-fenced thanks to the kindness and generosity of George Osborne. Rather, politicians respect the needs of the over 65s because the over 65s know how to make their voices heard: by going out and voting in their millions.
Only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted in the last general election. That's the lowest rate out of all 15 members of the old European Union and what's most troubling about it is that when it comes to politics, 18-24 year olds tend to be a whole lot more optimistic than older people. Black Lives Matter, Everyday Sexism, the Occupy movement; important, powerful campaigns all driven by the young. So why aren't they voting?
Due to no single party gaining a majority in the last election, we currently have a situation in which the government is pushing through "one of the most aggressive programs of welfare reform Britain has ever seen" on little more than 36% of the vote (and those are the bellicose words of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, by the way, not mine). One of the main reasons for not voting is the belief that it doesn't make a difference, yet if the 56% of 18-24 year olds who didn't vote last time had, the Tories almost certainly wouldn't be in power today. And if the Tories weren't in power today, these 'reforms', the overwhelmingly majority of which impact the young, would not be taking place.
Of course there's the argument that voting buys into the status quo, The American anarchist Emma Goldman famously said, "that if voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal." Modern cynicism suggests that each party is just as bad as the other and so, as Russell Brand famously suggested in 2013, why bother? The thing is, Brand didn't say "don't vote and then just sit around doing nothing, waiting for the revolution to come."What he actually meant was that to bring about change we need to protest, we need to demonstrate, and we need to organize our work places.
You see, democracy isn't just going to a polling station every five years and flicking some sort of magic switch. Brand recognizes that. What it is, however, is one tool among many and as long as you don't see it purely as the right to vote, as long as you do all those other bits as well, isn't it just as important to take part?
Voting doesn't have to be an either/or choice. We can still vote while participating in other ways to bring about systemic change. And if you really think no party represents you (although if, like Brand, you oppose the scapegoating of immigrants and believe the Living Wage to be a right, not a privilege, then I would say the Greens may be the one for you), go to the polling station on May 7th and spoil your ballot. But make sure you do go to the polling station, because the only way we will address things like welfare cuts, tuition fees, unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts is when politicians stop mistaking anger for apathy, and start listening to issues that impact on the young as well.
Voting may not be able to bring about radical change alone, but it is still one of our most powerful tools in the process. We should use it.
Text Matthew Whitehouse