Caitlin Prowle says modern day politics is off putting for young people.
‘Young people are disengaged and apathetic towards politics’ – it’s a phrase we hear used over and over again. As a 17 year old politics student, I am tired of hearing the media and politicians claiming that young people are simply disillusioned and uninterested, and ultimately using this as an excuse for low turnout amongst the younger generation. In my experience, studying in a sixth form where political participation and interest is encouraged and strengthened, I just can’t see that this statement is true, at least not to the extent that it is often claimed to be.
I’m not trying to pretend that all young people are excited, and have a keen interest in politics, because obviously there are many figures and statistics that would go against me. However, there are so many factors that contribute towards the supposed ‘apathy’ and I think that if we were to dig a little deeper, and go beneath the surface of this disinterest, we would find that, in many cases, young people are actually being discouraged from engaging with politics.
My generation were one of the first generations to be able to watch Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales on television. One would think that this would be a good thing; a direct way of experiencing the political system, seeing exactly how things work and how our country is run. The unfortunate reality is that this digitised viewing of politicians’ behaviour leaves young people (myself included) with a rather sour taste in their mouths, and leaves a negative impression overall. I remember watching an episode of Prime Minister’s questions when I was about 13, at a time where I was just beginning to develop a political interest and had started asking questions about politics. I don’t remember much from this experience, other than the constant chatter, shouting and thinking that the general impoliteness wouldn’t have been tolerated in my school classroom. It wasn’t until five years later, when I came to study politics that I watched it again. How can young people, be they children, teenagers or young adults, engage in politics when what they see on the television or online is behaviour that they would never dare to perform? How can they invest any trust or respect in people who can barely seem to summon the strength to act like adults themselves? Now, this is an example of a choice that young people must make. Do they sit back and endure the dramatic performances put on by politicians, endure the mockery, the eye-rolling, the shaking of heads, while they actually try to learn something? Or do they simply choose to ignore the whole procedure, do they decide to just carry on living their life without having to watch a circus of insults and bad behaviour? It’s easy to understand why so many people choose the latter.
When asked why so many young people turn away from politics, the usual response is that we are all ‘bored’. Bored by politicians, bored by education, bored by anything that requires a modicum of intellect. We are the ‘lad culture’, we are the generation obsessed with nothing but technology. We have rejected books and turned to video games. It would be wrong for me to claim that these statements don’t apply to some young people, or that influences such as the growth in technology don’t influence our lives in some way. However, to suggest that these things mean that young people are no longer enthusiastic and interested in the world of politics is equally incorrect. I cannot speak for every young person in the UK, that is impossible, but I can speak for my friends, my peers, the people I interact with on a daily basis. In order to prove to others (as well as myself) that it isn’t just me who’s angry with the notion that young people are simply ‘bored’ by politics, I spoke to some friends; friends from a variety of different backgrounds and of different ages. The response I received was one of passion, anger and disdain. One friend said this: “I feel as if the ‘bored’ excuse is used by the adults to make it look like we don’t care when in fact we care more than they know. I feel like adults are scared of what we’re capable of.” Another said: “It’s our future, why on earth would we be bored by the things that will directly affect our lives? That just doesn’t make sense”. Again and again these comments were sent to me; young people outraged by the idea that they are ‘bored’.
So why don’t these young people make a stand? Why don’t they contact their local MP or AM, get their voice heard, and participate in politics? My sixth form recently held a hustings event, where all of the local election candidates came into college on a quest to gain young votes. The auditorium was packed full of bright young minds, many of whom were 18 and ready to vote in the election. Despite our high expectations and excitement, we were all unfortunately severely underwhelmed after the event. It seemed that all of the candidates just confirmed what we already feared to be true; that all too often, politicians are all the same. We listened to the same bland list of promises over and over again. All of the candidates promised to try and lower tuition fees, all of the candidates promised that education would be their top priority, all of the candidates promised to be a young person’s ‘advocate’, providing they got our vote, of course. But did they answer our questions? Did they respond when grilled by students on funding for sixth forms? Did they encourage us to register to vote and ensure that we honour our right, no matter who we chose to vote for? No. No, instead they nattered on about their party’s manifesto, or their fantastic track records, or how much they had already supposedly done for the constituency. When we left that auditorium, the atmosphere was that of a fire that’s been dampened. The initial eagerness and zeal got replaced by crestfallen faces and whispers of a ‘waste of a lunchtime’. Now, I don’t think that can be referred to as boredom. Those candidates had a perfect opportunity to inspire young people to stand up and get involved, to create a foundation of trust, to educate. But unfortunately, that opportunity was wasted. Were the students in the room apathetic or uninterested? Or did they just feel let down, and like no one wanted to listen.
In the 1990s, a report was produced looking into how and why young people become detached from the world of politics. The report found that the main reasons that young people across the UK identified were that they felt ‘bored’ with ‘party political squabbles’, and felt that these were irrelevant to their lives. They also ‘consistently referred to their feelings of powerlessness and the limited opportunities for them to engage in politics until the age of 18.’ One thing this report did not produce was any evidence of apathy; these young people wanted to be involved in politics but felt that they were not given the power or respect to do so.
On the 30th of September, this year, it was announced that ‘Funky Dragon’, the National Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales, would no longer receive vital funding from the Welsh Government. This decision made Wales the only nation in the UK or Europe without its own national Youth Assembly. As a former member of Funky Dragon, I was shocked and hurt to hear the news, as I was lucky enough to benefit immensely from the experience. After researching this news further, I discovered that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in the last UK State report, openly praised and encouraged ‘support forums for children’s participation’, and included Funky Dragon in their list of examples. Why then has an organisation that has led the way for youth political participation and has been credited for its efforts lost all its funding? Surely this is sending the wrong message to young people? It suggests that, essentially, the government don’t really care about educating and nurturing the interests of the next generation. Again, an example of disenfranchising and discouraging young people.
‘Young people are disengaged and apathetic towards politics’ – I go back to this. Is this a fair statement? Is this really something that applies to the youth of today? No, I don’t think it is. Young people are not detached, apathetic, disillusioned or any other adjective used by politicians to cover up their ultimate failure. Young people have the potential to be engaged, excited and involved in the way our country is run, we just need to be given the right resources, information, encouragement and respect to do so. The sooner the political minds of the present realise that they are discouraging the political minds of the future, the better.