Young people estranged from devolved politics

Ebbi Ferguson says the current debate over devolution excludes younger voters in Wales.

As a 19-year-old who has been active in student politics, I’m already quite unusual among my peers.

I consider myself even more unusual in being interested enough in Wales’ devolution journey to following it religiously. Enough to be perplexed about the route it is taking.

As it stands, the debate over our constitutional future has so far been limited to Assembly Members and those living in the Assembly “bubble”.

But has there been a fundamental attempt to make the debate relevant to young people? Is there any evidence of an appetite to hook them into grand questions facing the country’s future, as we saw in Scotland?

The evidence suggests politicians are not succeeding in involving young people in decisions which will determine the world they live in for decades to come.

A study by the Wales Governance Centre into appetites for further devolution revealed a far greater proportion of those aged 18-35 answered “don’t know” (just under 15%) compared to those aged 36+, which hovered around 6%.

That study was timed around the last big constitutional referendum in 2011 on law-making powers. That gap between the generations has grown alarmingly since 1997.

Couple that with evidence there is widespread confusion over what the National Assembly has control over – including fewer than half knowing the NHS was run from Wales according to a BBC survey – and we have a worrying picture of the devolution debate occurring above the heads of the people it’s meant to benefit.

The lack of media content generated in, and specific to, Wales risks perpetuating this lack of focus and information on engaging, high-quality debate on what powers should reside in Wales, and how they are used.

The problem with the debate so far is that it’s being led and conducted by the type of people who dream up the political jargon. Debates, fringes and conferences talk of Barnett “floors”, of “consequentials” and of reserved / conferred powers models – with the lazy assumption that the masses should simply know what they are talking about.

With a Welsh media restricted in its capacity to “translate” technical chatter into exciting, digestible content and a UK media uninterested in the Welsh devolution debate, the end result is that those who have passionate political views have no wide reaching  platform. The very phenomenon discarded from the agenda of the Scottish referendum by “ordinary” voters themselves.

The good news is, there is little-to-no degree of apathy among students or young people about issues that are devolved. The passion for debate is as strong as ever.

Students can still take to the barricades over the cost of their tuition. Over restrictions on immigration. Or healthcare provision for students on campus, among a host of other issues.

But the reality is, in Wales, young people are estranged from devolved politics. They cannot enter the debate if they don’t understand what applies to the National Assembly and what’s decided in London. They don’t know what politics can do for them.

In the absence of a simple, yes-or-no debate, what can we do to make sure devolution is something that all potential voters, not just those that already do, can care about?

It has to start with a radical change in how politicians, commentators and opinion-formers – including NUS – talk about devolution. We have to bin the jargon and lead the debate on the voters’ terms – not compete with each other to sound clever on technicalities.

People will care about devolution when it’s clear what impact changes will have on their lives. So far, the debate over a move to a reserved powers model (one of the main headlines, though you’d struggle to get someone on the street to adequately describe it), income tax powers or even electoral reform have achieved precisely zero engagement.

We have let politicians off the hook for 15 years in allowing them to carry on quietly without making Welsh politics the property of the ordinary voter.

If we raise the white flag now, the consequences of having a generation of voters living in ignorance of what goes on in Cardiff Bay are grave. An Assembly / Parliament accumulating more and more power, increasingly under the radar, is a scenario that shouldn’t be tolerated in a democracy.

NUS Wales faces a battle on its hands to get students registered to vote for the General Election in May and the Assembly elections in 2016.

If we carry on as we are, that battle is set to get considerably harder.

Ebbi Ferguson is Deputy President of the National Union of Students, Wales.

7 thoughts on “Young people estranged from devolved politics

  1. Nicely written article. A little worrying that students, who are some of our more able citizens, don’t have the curiosity or inclination to find out what is devolved and what isn’t. You have to be pretty unaware of what is going on around you to be in that position – these are not difficult concepts.

    Surely with our closed list PR system a well organised student/youth body now has a very good opportunity to achieve direct representation of one of its own in the Assembly ?

  2. If young people are ignorant of the political processes in Wales (or anywhere else) they have nobody but themselves to blame. Not only do students have access to exactly the same information as the rest of us but you are supposed to be practising the art of self-education in your own fields which should provide you with every skill you all need to upskill yourselves on the political situation be it local, regional, national or international.

    IF politics really matters to any of you then stop bleating about it and just do it! If being the operative word!

  3. Welsh labour establishment doesn’t want debate. It can coast along quite comfortably without it. And as long as the old-timers vote Labour, who cares what the kids think. They haven’t got the gumption to vote anyway. In a democracy people get the government they deserve. Oh dear.

  4. Scotland showed that people of all ages can get involved. But Scots had a big issue to debate – real independence. The referendum process itself has proved a game-changer (I doubt SNP leaders would really have wanted an independence referendum ten years ago).

  5. I don’t think you need to be young to worry about some of the communication issues that this article refers to. Older people may be more likely to vote, but that doesn’t mean that they necessary understand the constitutional arrangements of devolution (I know people who have done out-polling in the past and have suggested as much) or that they are able to cut through the myriad layers of spin and scare-mongering.

    Young people certainly lose out through their lack of engagement in electoral politics. But that shouldn’t be a cause for inter-generational mud-slinging (John R Walker!). These young people will be supporting baby boomers into a retirement that they themselves will probably be denied, so engaging them in civic life as early as possible should be a pressing concern – particularly as social attitudes surveys tend to show today’s young people to be more sceptical about the state and about redistribution (these are, after all, Thatcher’s children). More to the point, as the author very perceptively points out our whole democracy suffers when politicians are allowed an easy ride.

    As for why even our best and brightest young people are not attracted to politics, the answer is not so hard to fathom. Politics doesn’t imply the same kind of power and potential for change that it used to. While previous governments could expect to influence the commanding heights of the economy and shape the global order, nowadays they can expect to shuffle an ever-decreasing budget around an ever-decreasing array of departments and agencies while going cap-in-hand looking for Foreign Direct Investment. I’m sure that many young people look at their lives and conclude that private firms have more influence than governments, to which there is more than a grain of truth. Add to it the fact that politicians seem so out of touch, and the fact that governments would rather scramble for the short term grey vote than build new allegiances, and the appeal of voting starts to look very weak indeed.

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