NOTE: This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/bradley-allsop/student-politics_b_5567917.html
18-24 year olds have consistently the lowest voting turn-outs, and thus are the forgotten demographic when it comes to government policy. But are students really that disinterested – or does the blame lie elsewhere?
Why don’t we stop asking why students are disengaged with politics, and start asking why politics is disengaged with students?
Hard to get into?
‘Politics’ is seen as a specialist area of interest, like archaeology or Chinese architecture. It is quite often construed as the Chancellor droning on about deficits and GDP, and this simply doesn’t connect with most of the public, let alone students. Politics, as cliché as it sounds, really is everything. It encompasses so much more than what politicians usually represent. It is this ‘more’ that students do care about, they just find no representation for their concerns in Westminster.
Not only is it boring, but it’s not all that accessible either. Compared to the level of influence many students can enjoy in their universities and Student Unions, the governance of the land can often seem aloof and distant. This is why the sort of policies that encourage more accountability for MPs, and give more power back to local authorities are sorely needed, so young people feel like they have more say in the direction of their communities and the actions of their officials.
Students also tend to be interested in alternative forms of participation, ones that the government seems to be pretty good at either ignoring or actively suppressing. One need only think of the ‘Anti-Social’ and ‘Gagging’ Bills, curtailing the voices of charities/NGOs and endangering political protest, or the recent People’s Assembly march against austerity that was completely ignored. There is more than one way to do politics, and Westminster needs to start taking notice of that.
Spot the difference
Variety is supposed to be the spice of life, and if so no wonder British politics has become so bland. In the aftermath of World War 2 we saw the rise of the welfare state, one of the most divisive issues in political history. This was a time of a great ideological battle, where parties really stood for something, and party memberships subsequently soared (the only time in the last century they have).
This is why we have a coalition – neither Labour nor the Conservatives could convince enough people at the last election. The journey of New Labour is one of traversing the murky waters of the centre, to set their feet firmly on the right-wing side of the spectrum, seemingly now agreeing with the Tories on more than they disagree. And who really knows what the Lib Dems stand for?
This is why more radical, fringe groups such as the Greens and UKIP are the only parties with memberships increasing. Young people are tired of the business as usual, dry way of doing politics, the same way that has led to multiple recessions, deepening inequality, and environmental degradation. We’re not interested in short-term gains – we have a whole lifetime ahead of us and we want decisions that deal with the long term. We want something new, and we want alternatives in our political parties that go deeper than the colour of the rosette they wear.
Not all politicians will want change
Once all of this is considered, one could be forgiven for being more than a little suspicious that the powers that be in Westminster don’t actually want students and young people to be more engaged. If we’re tired of business as usual, if we want more of a say over our futures, and if we’re prepared to explore radical alternatives – then allowing us to become more engaged wouldn’t exactly be in the interests of the main parties, would it?
But like it or not, with the polarising effect that is UKIP still dominating headlines, more and more students are being drawn into the debate – I am confident we will see a higher student turn out in 2015 than we have for a long time.
The challenge to Labour is to be bold and stick to its roots, rather than trying to out-Tory the Tories, or out-UKIP UKIP.
The challenge to Westminster is to recognise the anger and frustration many young people feel towards politics and act on it – make MPs more accountable, invest more power in local communities, and make our democracy more democratic.
And the challenge to all of us is to see the problem not as young people, but as politics. It is the politicians that are currently disengaged from students, rather than the other way around. But soon our voices shall be raised and they will have no choice but to listen.
The challenge to students is to join in with the chorus for change.