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.

5 thoughts on “The Young and the Disaffected

  1. This is not about “the young” or “women” or “ethnic minorities.” Indeed, talking about people in terms of various groups is part of the problem. The real issue is a general sense of disengagement, based on a deeper sense of alienation, which is sweeping across people of all ages, occupations, and opinions.

    People no longer believe that their votes make any difference – and who is to say they are wrong? We are increasingly an oligarchy, ruled by a political class cut off from the lives of the vast majority. Next year’s main Prime Ministerial debate will be between three similar-looking dark- haired young men with similar education, similar attitudes, and a similar lack of real-world experience.

    At the Wales level, the voting is a formality: we know we are going to end up with a Labour-led Assembly. It was designed that way.

    The main obstacle to real democracy is the party system, supported by uncritical mainstream media and a massive public sector payroll vote.

    There are measures that could be taken to open up the system – changes in electoral and broadcasting law, and possibly the introduction of open primaries – but, of course, nothing is going to happen. The Establishment will not give up its powers and privileges voluntarily.

  2. Excellent article. The disengagement of young people, and especially young women, is frightening. As you rightly note, middle aged non-entities are elected by….yes, you’ve guessed it. Love the comment regarding the dinosaur Dimbleby. Question Time, and other so-called “popular” politics programmes, do nothing to inform people or stimulate real debate. Political education in schools, rather than religious education, would be one way forward.

  3. Prime Minister used to be in their late 50s or 60s when they took over. Early 50s was ‘young’. Kennedy in the US started a fashion for premiers in their 40s and since then it has become obligatory to have a young Prime Minister in their 40s. Has the quality of government improved? On the contrary. Blair was no Atlee and Cameron has shown many signs of immature judgement. Have younger political leaders led to greater engagement by young people? Again, the opposite. So now we want still younger politicians? Where will it end? The youth worshippers won’t be happy until Andy Pandy is running the country and we’re all completely infantalised. It’s clear our problem is immature too-young politicians with not enough life experience. I would ban anyone from politics under the age of 35 and holding executive office under 50. Youngsters needn’t worry; their turn will come and all too quickly.

  4. I think I agree with the above comment of Mr.Tredwyn. Why should one’s youth be wasted in politics? My main worry is the number of council employees who apparently feel they can morph into a politics career – we need (experienced older) people from the real world to represent us (and the youf!) not ex council drones.

  5. Why don’t young people want to stand for political office? For the same reasons that most people of any age don’t – because it is a terrible job. It is high stressful, requiring immense levels of personal discipline and organisational skill. It offers irregular hours and is essentially a full-time (as in all of the time) commitment. There is very little in the way of learning, skill development or professional development. Elected politicians face levels of evaluation and scrutiny from a media and public that find it hard to accept even the most harmless of personal vices – particularly the kinds of things that young people are statistically more likely to dabble in. Furthermore, while youth unemployment is higher than the mean average level of unemployment, I find it hard to believe that the store manager who doesn’t trust a 20 year old to fold T shirts would trust them with the management of schools and parks.

    More to the point, and here I agree with Mr Winterson Richards’ first point, while identity politics can affirm people’s desire to engage, it is potentially a distraction from the work of shoring up democracy. The point of a liberal democracy is that you do not always get exactly what you want and you accept the right of others to get what they want some of the time, and you build bonds with others based on shared interests that can be broken and remade and the process goes on. Representatives do not need to look or sound like you in order to represent you. I heard it said in debates surrounding the rise of UKIP, (which to my mind operates in contrast to the principles I have outlined above and is therefore a threat to democracy), that one explanation for this new populism is a kind of electoral narcissism in which each voter wants a representative and a policy that they feel is for them and them alone, often meaning that they must seek to trample over the interests of others. This is not democratic and can lead to a very nasty type of communitarian politics.

    Yet, young people do share a number of important grievances that cross other sectional boundaries such as ethnicity or gender or class – current economic policies that favour home ownership, the ending of grant-funded higher education, inequitable cuts to welfare payments and health spending, inconsistent messages surrounding school reform, and pressures on the cost of living – and it is essential for young people to make these concerns heard. Discussion of these issues should start out being young person-centric, and schools, colleges, youth clubs, community centre, sports clubs and anywhere that young people go must be targeted as the means to bringing the conversation closer to them. But ultimately the aim should be to encourage young people to engage with the existing forums of civil society, so that they may carve themselves a place where they have previously been frozen out, and learn the ‘rules of the game’ so that they can stand alongside everyone else and realise that they are actually not so different from people in their 40s, 50s and even 80s.

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