Yvonne Murphy argues that we have a duty to educate young people, and the general population, in how to participate in democracy.
The problem that is keeping me awake at night.
We have votes for 16 for the first time in Wales.
However, Welsh and UK citizens, crucially including sixteen year olds and educators, do not have a sound basic understanding of our UK democracy.
Generally, citizens in Wales and the UK do not understand how local government (Town, Community, County, City Councils), devolved governments (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and UK (Westminster) government all fit together and why and who is responsible for what and how to contact their elected representatives.
If you are looking for someone to blame I believe that this state of affairs is the responsibility of all past governments, all political parties, broadcasters, media, educators, policymakers, and decision makers.
So how do we change it? How do we captivate and engage an audience of millions, include young people as co-creators and intrigue and inform everyone so that they understand and want to engage with our democracy all year round and not simply at the ballot box?
We are in exciting times. A new and ambitious ‘Curriculum for Wales’ being created and rolled out, and votes for 16 year olds introduced for the first time.
“I have been told by one 19 year old in another focus group that she would never vote again. She was furious.”
However, if we are to meet the Four Purposes of the new curriculum and increase voter turnout, and democratic participation generally, we must equip our educators and all citizens aged 16 plus with the basic information about our democratic systems and structures. Only then will we break the current cycle of poor, shared storytelling of our democracy.
The cycle of poor shared storytelling
The young people I interviewed, surveyed and spoke with were all, without exception, keen to understand our democracy and frustrated that they didn’t. “Why weren’t we taught this at school?” was the constant refrain.
There is a shame accompanying not knowing this stuff which moves with them through into adulthood and gets harder and harder to admit to. We need ‘NoShameNoBlame’ surrounding our UK democracy story; as two of the young co-creators from the research titled their podcast.
If you are a teacher it is hard enough to stand in front of a class and teach your own subject. To teach something you do not understand yourself, and to do it creatively to engage and inspire young people, is a tall order.
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Therefore, teachers may understandably sidestep it all together or resort to the passive practice of putting on a video or handing out a workbook and so the lack of understanding, story sharing and democratic engagement and participation will continue.
During the course of the first phase of my research, I have surveyed and sat and talked with hundreds of people across Wales, both face to face, when the world was so inclined, and in the last nine months, via a screen.
I have been told time and time again by every single one of them, from children to the elderly, that a) they don’t know the basics of our democratic systems and structures well enough – or at all – and b) they want to know this stuff. They are passionate about wanting to know it.
I have sat and watched a 16 year old try and find out who her elected representatives are. Sat painfully watching her internet search, go down dead ends and blind alleys, navigate non-user friendly websites and still be no clearer who her MP or MS was let alone the Councillors who represent her ward.
After ten minutes I asked ‘at what point would you have given up if I wasn’t here watching?’ and she replied, downcast and defeated, ‘After a couple of minutes’.
I have been told by one 19 year old in another focus group that she would never vote again. She was furious. When I asked her to tell me more she began to describe a frustration with our electoral system that she struggled to articulate.
She didn’t have knowledge or the vocabulary of ‘First Past the Post’ or ‘Proportional Representation’. Neither did I until a few years ago – and I am 51. And so I explained it to her. A headline explainer. A fast and simple introduction in about 30 seconds. And I watched the lightbulb moment. The ‘aha’ moment.
“This basic information and the dissemination of it is the responsibility of… our state education system and our state funded broadcasters.”
And then she was angry all over again, but this time because no one had told her this before. She had been through thirteen years of a state education system and come out the other side without a basic understanding of our democratic systems and structures. And she is not alone. Check out this petition started four years ago.
I was told in focus groups ‘slow down, go back, we don’t even understand the words you are using’. Words such as ‘constituency’, ‘ward’, ‘First Past the Post’, ‘parliament’ and the word ‘democracy’ itself!
In a survey of 150 respondents and in all the focus groups, 1-2-1s, and by every young person I co-created with and interviewed I was told overwhelmingly that we need to teach the basics from a young age in simple and non-partisan terms inside formal education from primary school age onwards and also across all media platforms.
So what is to be done? And who is supposed to be doing it?
‘Who’s supposed to be doing it?’
There are many ‘players’ or ‘actors’ in the ‘democracy sector’ all doing brilliant and important work in this area including the IWA. Many of them are named collaborators on The Democracy Box.
Leading up to the first election in Wales where 16 year olds can vote for the first time, there is fast and furious work being done by many organisations including the Electoral Commission, the Welsh Government, the Welsh Parliament, the Electoral Reform Society, broadcasters and educators across Wales. More content is being created. More resources. More teacher/educator guides and packs.
“These campaigns need to stay with us; not for a few days, weeks, months or years but for decades.”
But how does a 17 year old from one of the lowest voter turnout constituencies in Wales who has already left formal education find all these resources? They are not going to google the electoral commission or follow the Welsh Government or Welsh Parliament on Instagram.
Ultimately, I believe this basic information and the dissemination of it is the responsibility of the state. We have the platforms to disseminate it in the shape of our state education system and our state funded broadcasters who have it written into their charters and purposes.
It needs to be funded by the state and be independent and non-partisan and it needs to have young people aged 16-30 at the very heart of it’s creation and curation.
Some of the young people I recruited as co-creators for the first phase of the research had little or no interest in democracy before the project. When given just a tiny bit of knowledge and agency they became passionate about creatively sharing what they had learnt with other young people.
‘What is to be done?’
What I am doing is not radical and yet I cannot quite believe it doesn’t exist. Simple basic information created by young people to explain the fundamental knowledge blocks of our UK democracy. The basics that every citizen should know. Non-election, all year-round information.
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Together with collaborators, creatives and those disengaged young people from those lowest voter turnout constituencies, I am trying to work out how to make the simplest and ‘stickiest’ Public Information Campaign and Educational Information Campaign possible to share the basic level information to the largest number of people possible on an ongoing year round basis and create the foundation for all the other voter and election related information.
I have divided voter information into four levels. The Democracy Box project is all about level one.
The Four Levels of Democratic Information
- Foundation: Non-election specific and not about political parties. The fundamental knowledge blocks of our UK democracy. The difference between local government, devolved and Westminster. The difference between the First Minister and the Prime Minister and between an MS , MP and a councillor. Understanding the three levels of government and First Past the Post and Proportional Representation and what a constituency is and what the word democracy itself even means and how we can get involved and have our say all year round and not just on election days. The basics that every citizen should know.
- Political Party Basics: Neutral factual history, values and priorities of each specific UK political party. Non-election specific.
- Election Specific Information Nuts & Bolts: where & how to register & vote.
- Election Specific Party Political Information: Manifestos, policies, factual, positional, comparative, analytical & evaluative information to enable voters to decide who to vote for in an election.
These campaigns need to stay with us; not for a few days, weeks, months or years but for decades. They must signpost and enable us all to access and navigate our way through all that brilliant content and resources already out there and understand and share our collective story.
Because only when we all know our collective story will we be able to write the next chapter, together.
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If you would like to collaborate on this project, have a conversation or have any information you would like to share please email Yvonne at firstname.lastname@example.org