Political apathy amongst young voters has been a topic discussed for years, as turnout at both local and general elections is steadily falling, but have politicians and researchers got it wrong?
It seems obvious to me that apathy simply doesn’t exist, but the concept is thrown around constantly when discussing young voters, particularly those between the ages of 18-24. No one can be disinterested in or bored of politics, it makes up almost all aspects of our lives – from fixing potholes in your road, making sure the food you buy is safe and giving you and your family an education, to (trying) to keep our economy growing, succeeding in putting thousands of students in debt and entering us into wars we couldn’t really afford to enter. Even if you don’t know it, you’re interested in what the government is doing, and if you claim otherwise, your view on the world is beautifully ignorant.
Unfortunately, it’s true that young people are less likely to vote in a general election, with only 37% of 18-24 year olds voting in 2005. But if apathy isn’t the cause of this disappointing figure then what is? The answer is lack of understanding. To many of us, the government is a big scary monster that never does anything right. We know we can vote at 18, but we’re more interested in booze, and when the general election rolls around we’ll follow in our parents footsteps when choosing if we should vote red, blue, yellow, green or possibly purple (if we decide to vote at all).
Thousands of young people know nothing about the world of politics, and until I began studying it at A-Level and fell completely in love with the subject, I had a very limited understanding of politics myself. In the back of my mind I’d always been interested in how our country was being run, and I’d always had a strong opinion, but what about those who aren’t? Before moving up to sixth form, I vaguely recall one lesson on the government during personal development education, in which we invented our very own political party, made up badly thought out policies and spent the majority of the one hour session thinking of a pretty logo. This was hardly encouraging.
For those who don’t decide to study politics, they may be entering adult life with limited knowledge on something that practically controls them, or possibly worse – a one sided opinion passed down through generations, with no opinion of their own. The seven of over two hundred girls at my sixth form who chose to study politics have their own WhatsApp group, where we swap ridiculous photos of Michael Gove and avidly update each other on the BBC News app’s commentary on David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle. It seems an obvious contrast, which is only growing as Government and Politics is no longer being offered at my sixth form to the lower sixth.
How can we expect anyone to become politically active if we don’t provide the basics? While we hope that most 17/18 year olds could name a few of the main differences between the three leading parties in the UK, it is exactly that – a hope. Now I’m not saying that this generation is completely thick, I’m saying that, ironically, the government have failed us. They’ve spent all their time wondering why we aren’t voting, while we’re sat watching Made in Chelsea.
Some countries enforce fines for those who fail to vote, but I doubt this would do anything but increase the number of spoiled or protest votes for parties like the dreaded BNP or UKIP. Perhaps lowering the voting age to 16 would make a difference, but it could similarly make the situation worse if young people aren’t sufficiently educated about how our government works. Obviously we should have some right in controlling particular issues, even if you’re under 18; the rise in university fees for example, a policy that directly impacts us. While at the time I was only studying for my GCSE’s it’s something that has changed my future considerably and will leave me in debt for the beginning of my adult life. Perhaps opening the polling stations to today’s youth earlier may interest them – but perhaps it will push them further away.
The only real way to get young people more involved in politics is simply to educate them, to make them see its importance in both the short and long term, and I highly doubt one lesson in their entire school career will quite provide the inspiration needed. Encourage young people to understand what’s happening, go to rallies, get involved with pressure groups, form an opinion and stick with it. Democracy is something that was worked for and still is worked for around the world – let’s make sure this generation doesn’t throw it away.