take back the vote: why young people need to push their way back into politics
With a general election to come this year, Nathalie Olah examines the political landscape for young people in 2015.
Last week the Prime Minister stood at a lawnmower factory in Ipswich defending the actions of the government minister Eric Pickles after he'd asked followers of Islam to prove their 'British Identity'. It was many things: a kneejerk response to recent events in Paris, an affront to many people's beliefs and the most unsexy thing to have happened since those Tony Blair/Wendi Deng affair rumours.
Perhaps that's the point. With studied references to a pop-culture so far removed from their daily lives as to make the whole thing resemble an alien taking an earth citizenship test, politicians used to tie themselves in knots trying to win young people over (see: this). Now they seem to have given up all together. In a game of Wind in the Willows politics, more appropriate to fuedalism than the modern age, election campaigns are careering ahead with only a thought for winning back their once loyal supporters from the clutches of UKIP. Most of us below the age of 35 will be grateful that the patronising tone towards 'young people' has stopped, but I worry that it's reflective of a wider sense of defeatism with regards meeting our very urgent needs.
After the Lib Dem's disastrous failure to protect the interests of students, the present political class seems to have realised that it will never win young people over. That might be true, but distrust of those in power shouldn't hamper our interest in politics as a whole. In the lead up to the 2015 election, there seems to be an assumption that young people won't turn out to vote. Yet despite the pervasive narrative that young voters are on the decline, a recent survey showed that 52% of people aged 18-25 will definitely vote in the next election, while a further 25% said they 'probably' would vote too. And what of the others?
Cite Emmeline Pankhurst all you like, people shouldn't be made to feel guilty for not wanting to cast their vote in a system presided over by middle aged white men hurling anachronistic insults at each other over the same, nebulous points. When I talk about sexiness in politics I'm not talking about the DSK variety, but rabble-rousing speeches, gravitas, emotion, debate, history… Whatever your views about its content, Obama's State of the Union address the day after Cameron's lawnmower monologue displayed more charisma than every political speech delivered in mainstream British politics over the past five years combined. Other countries just seem to get that a certain amount of theatre is required to engage mass audiences.
I use the lawnmower example half-jokingly. Politicians need to engage with all demographics and register their support for different industries, but attempts to engage the older, richer voters have come at the expense of young people's political interests. Today's politics is obsessed with immediacies - the ups and downs of current affairs - but lacks any kind of overarching principles or strategy. Our politics no longer stands for anything. Policies are drawn up in reaction to whatever the other is doing and on the game of constant retaliation and one upmanship, the audience, and specifically the younger and more idealistic audience, has been neglected. In the quagmire of trivial insults and lame jokes hurled from either side, politicians have lost sight of their very reason for being.
Of course, principles are one thing and shouldn't come at the expense of sound ideas. Style over substance leads us into the kind of Troy McClure politics of New Labour's Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, which only bred resentment and distrust. Honesty is the obviously the best policy, but am I alone in thinking there has to be some middle ground between inviting Noel Gallagher to 10 Downing Street, and wheeling out a 'straight-talking' Fred Elliot type to deal with the pesky Muslims?
Evidently not. Rick Edwards has been doing great work in addressing the above in his tireless campaign to get young people voting. His scepticism towards the practises of modern politics stops short of Brand's approach of encouraging us to actively abstain from voting. Instead he says that the sense of disheartenment driven by the incompetence of politicians should push us to go beyond their flimsy rhetoric to find real, political inspiration. Look beyond the PR machines of the non-committal, two-party political race, to the more peripheral parties, the books and the political philosophers.
On a recent trip to France many young people vented their concerns about Marine Le Pen and her party, Front National. They are of course much more popular than their British 'equivalent', Farage and UKIP. But that wasn't the only reason so many young people wanted to talk about them. They seemed, in general, much more engaged in political discussion. Now the third biggest party in France, Le Pen topped a recent poll as the most popular candidate for Presidency in 2017. This is worrying, but it is also indicative of a country where change is possible. France can never be accused of standing still. Its right and left-wing parties fall much more neatly into those two categories than ours and votes, it has to be said, seem to actually mean something.
The French have also harnessed the power of the protest vote. Attempts to vandalise ballot papers are futile, usually leading to the vote being dismissed all together. The fact is, in the present system, it is very easy to simply mark an 'X' next to a candidate whose policies you hardly agree with on the basis or habit, or a sense of misplaced loyalty.
The British media has a role to play too. Rather than promoting free discussion and allowing for alternative perspectives that encourage us to feel a part of political discourse, the tone of newspapers is growing increasingly censorious. The comment culture is heavily prescriptive (editors literally contact writers asking if they would like to express a given opinion) and as such, this only creates an illusion of free debate. Like decency manuals, stories are rolled out over several weeks while papers employ their designated moralisers to dictate how the rest of us should feel.
It can sometimes sound like the worst of chat show pop-psychology. It can also serve to negate its own intentions. For instance, the media's on-going attempts to delegitimise Farage have only played into his hands, compounding support within his existing fan-base, whose views, however misguided, are being dismissed off-hand; while misleading others into believing that UKIP are trivial, and by proxy, harmless. Which they're not.
What quicker way to confirm the belief that the distant gods of Westminster and the London centric media don't understand or have any interest in the lives of normal people, than to continually shelve views held by many up and down the country? What better way to alienate young people, than to shut down the very discussions, however difficult and contentious, currently underpinning British politics? Wouldn't it be much more effective, powerful and engaging to disprove those views with sound reasoning - disarming Farage whose smugness seems to rest on the fact that all anyone can do is cry personal offence and put their hands over their ears?
There are interesting and urgent issues at stake in the next election, but we are not going to grapple with them via the whimpering of a moralising media or via the flimsy rhetoric of PMQs. It's time to take things into our own hands, to refuse a system of politics that hinges on pacifying us through ignorance. I'll stop short of saying we should all vote Green, but perhaps we should all vote Green. Whatever, it's time to exercise our democratic rights and prove to us that change is possible. After all, who wants another five years of abject poverty soundtracked by the self-satisfied tones of Gary Barlow?
Text Nathalie Olah
Photography Bob Bob