The outcome of the upcoming election will have huge implications on the lives of young people. Decisions on the budget deficit, welfare spending, job creation, house prices, tuition fees, climate change, and swathes of other issues will have more repercussions on the young than anyone else. It’s a travesty therefore that young people are so disempowered. The following two passages in the Conservative Party manifesto typify this.
We will replace the Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-21 year-olds with a Youth Allowance that will be time-limited to six months, after which young people will have to take an apprenticeship, a traineeship or do daily community work for their benefits. It is also not fair that taxpayers should have to pay for 18-21 year-olds on Jobseeker’s Allowance to claim Housing Benefit in order to leave home. So we will ensure that they no longer have an automatic entitlement to Housing Benefit.
We will keep the triple lock pension system. From April 2016 we are bringing in a Single Tier Pension; this will effectively abolish means-testing the pensions of people who have contributed all their lives. We will maintain all the current pensioner benefits including Winter Fuel Payments, free bus passes, free prescriptions and TV licences for the next Parliament.
The Conservative Party want to end housing benefit for people under 21 who do not work or study, yet will allow pensioners to claim additional benefits on top of their ring-fenced state pensions, regardless of if they need them. Young people would argue that this is unfair, but their interests are not likely to be given primacy. Why? Not enough young people vote. Only 44% of young people voted in the 2010 General Election, and since then we’ve seen tuition fees triple, Education Maintenance Allowance cut, and young people struggle disproportionately with jobs and housing. The outlook for the upcoming election looks similarly bleak; a poll in the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement found that just 16% of 18-24 year olds are ‘certain to vote’. 30%, on the other hand, say they are ‘certain not to vote’.
Research by Demos however, shows that this disengagement with the electoral process is not symptomatic of indifference. Indeed, in a study on voter apathy, they found that 80% of people aged 18-25 campaigned on an issue in the past year, whether this involved health pharmacy no prescription signing a petition or boycotting a product. Young people apparently do care.
So why doesn’t caring translate into voting? One reason for this is the parochial nature of Westminster politics. It’s difficult for young people to engage seriously in the electoral process when attempts to engage them look like this. Another reason is that young people simply don’t see what their vote means to them and the issues that they care about. The same study by Demos found that 58% of people aged 18-25 felt that they were not well informed enough on electoral politics to cast a vote, despite 69% of young people in a vInspired poll disagreeing with Russell Brand’s encouragement of abstention. 71% stated in the same poll that they wanted ‘basic politics’ to be taught in schools to help them make informed choices at the polling booth.
The current education system, however, does precious little. There is no such thing as a Politics GCSE (one wonders how politics can be overlooked in a curriculum that teaches geography, history, music, drama, art, literature, and religion); A Level Politics is discretionary, and rarely offered; and citizenship classes that involve discussions on political affairs are both too broad and too sparse. Young people leave school without much of an understanding of how political processes work and what their roles are within them.
Politics should at least be offered at GCSE level, with a course that aims to spark an interest in electoral politics. A basic insight into the Westminster model; the EU; devolution; elections and referenda; ideologies; the roles of MPs, councils, lobbies, unions, the media, and NGOs; and other key elements of British politics can help young people make informed enough decisions to stand up for their interests and the causes that they care about. It can enable young people to understand how they can be influential, be that through supporting, challenging, or changing the status quo.
Universal participation should be a goal for any healthy democracy, but not enough is being done to facilitate the political engagement of young people. National issues are as relevant to young people as ever, and the youth vote has the potential to shape decisions made in Westminster in a much more meaningful way. It’s time the education system gave young people the means to making their voices heard.