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.

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