The Young and the Disaffected

Sophie Williams argues that young people are suffering the most from political disengagement.

With this week marking the anniversary of the National Assembly for Wales, many have been looking back at the first 15 years of devolution. Spoiling this short trip down memory lane, however, has been the news that in a recent poll fewer than half of people knew who runs the NHS in Wales. While disappointing this news does not come as a surprise. Just last week Question Time returned to Wales, and while increasing their focus on Welsh issues, failed once again to involve anyone accountable for the issues discussed, culminating in David Dimbleby confusing the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales. With no AM’s present on the panel, yet again, it is not difficult to see why there is confusion.

These two instances of recent confusion over the Welsh political landscape are not isolated but are symptomatic of a wider problem of political engagement. Whilst political engagement is lacking across many societal groups, young people are particularly disengaged; we are continually reminded of the comparatively low levels of political participation among young people, and calls to increase youth engagement as a matter of urgency are often heard from party leaders, who centre many key policy initiatives on young people’s issues, particularly youth unemployment.

However, whilst such measures as lowering the voting age, introducing civic education into schools or moving to online voting are often suggested as methods for increasing voter turnout among young people, there is a wider, more fundamental issue that must be addressed: youth representation. In this context, youth representation refers not to how young people’s issues are represented on the political stage (an equally important issue) but rather to the number of young people becoming political representatives themselves.

It is debatable whether the current cohort of political representatives- Councillors, MPs and AMs- adequately represent young people in Walesl. Certainly, it is difficult to argue that they represent the electorate or population as a whole, given that we continue to be predominantly represented by middle-aged white men. Female representation is a long-standing issue; currently, only 7 out 40 Welsh MPs are female, with only 147 female MPs out of 650 UK-wide. Even more shocking statistics can be found for black and ethnic minority representation: currently, only 27 out of 650 MPs represent an ethnic minority. Political parties are aware of this shortfall, with some adopting positive action measures, such as All Women Shortlists, in candidate selection, to try and redress the balance, yet measures to run All Women Shortlists in two constituencies for selection in the General Election next year have resulted in wide public debate.  Whatever your views on the efficacy of positive action measures to achieve their objectives in these circumstances, the issue has at least been recognised as a problem requiring a solution.

The same cannot be said for the even more poorly represented category of young people. By way of example: the Welsh Government undertook a survey in May 2013 looking at the profile and characteristics of candidates in the 2012 Welsh Local Government Elections, including not just those who were successful, but all those who stood for election. In comparison with a similar survey conducted in 2004, some progress has been made on female representation: 32% of Welsh councillors are now female, an increase of 10% on 2004. As women make up half of the population, however, there is still some way to go.

The need to improve the situation as far as young people are concerned, moreover, is even more pressing. 57% of Welsh Councillors are over 60, a figure that rises to 61% of Community Councillors. The average age of a Councillor is 60, a figure that has actually increased since 2004, when it was 57. (It is 50 for a UK MP). Less than 2% of all Welsh council candidates were under 30, a figure that drops to less than 1% of Community Council candidates. Only 11% were under 40. In 2004, the percentage of candidates under 30 was 0.9%, an increase of only 1.1% in nearly 10 years. One final statistic: it was previously highlighted that only 7 out of 40 Welsh MPs are female. Currently, there are no Welsh MPs or AMs under 30.

Several news reports preceding the 2012 election highlighted notable examples bucking this trend; Swansea Council, for example, has a 22-year-old Cabinet Member, while Monmouth elected an 18 year old. Whilst these achievements must be celebrated, the fact remains: the number of Councillors under 30 per Welsh council is in single figures.

So why is this an issue? In these times of increased public disenchantment with politics and the political process, the use of representation as a mechanism for increasing young people’s engagement with politics is one possible tool in the fight to get young people more involved in how their society is organised. It is often argued that young people are apathetic towards politics, and simply do not care about issues affecting them or anyone else. Whether this really is the case is debatable; a 2002 Electoral Commission Report found that young people are rather disengaged from the traditional political process, seeing no need to vote or participate because they feel it will have no effect on the outcome. At the 2010 UK General Election, just over 40% of those aged 18-24 voted, compared with over 70% of over 65s. Lack of symbolic and descriptive representation arguably breeds cynicism and distrust, as it creates a feeling of exclusion and often irrelevance- as young people feel uninvolved in decision-making, they are apt to associate politics with older people, and not relevant to their own lives. With no one else of their age bracket, gender or race involved, they see no reason to participate themselves.

Whilst revealing, statistics can only take us so far; we need research into why more young people are not being elected to political office. Is it a question of young people themselves not coming forward and not joining political parties, or, if they are coming forward, are they then not being selected because of their age? In an age where positive action measures are in place for race and gender, do we need to extend such measures to age as well?

Given this week’s statistics on the population’s awareness of Welsh politics, disengagement is clearly continuing. If we want to reverse this trend for future generations, now is the time to look seriously at who is representing us, and decide if that demographic profile is truly befitting of modern political representation.

Sophie Williams is a PHD student in Swansea University, where she is studying national identity in Wales and the Basque Country.

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