Young people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics – why is this happening, and what can we do to change it?
For as long as I can remember, I have been political. My “political awakening” happened in 2014, after the announcement made by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that there would be cuts to legal aid. I would like to say this came from my inherent sense of justice and passion for the right to a fair trial, but unfortunately this is not the case. My father is a lawyer, and these cuts meant that it was going to be a financial struggle to continue to live in our family home, and we had to move house. Naturally, as a nine-year-old girl who was growing up middle-class in the Surrey Hills, this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I vividly remember after being told this devastating piece of news storming up to my bedroom and writing in my diary “I HATE CHRIS GRAYLING”. This would not be the first time in my life that I felt genuine anger towards someone I have never met, who was making decisions that were affecting my life and didn’t even care.
People of my age were born under New Labour, grew up in the midst of Conservative austerity, started secondary school during Brexit, and spent our teenage years during the presidency of Donald Trump and the mishandling of a global pandemic. For me, this shaped my life in an unexplainable manner, and has led me to become hugely politically aware. Some of this I must credit to my father, who has always been there to talk and discuss politics, both over dinner, and now through phone calls when something newsworthy happens, and some to my A-Level politics teachers, who put up with my incessant questions and opinions, while instilling in me a passion for the subject that I still feel today. I am now an avid news junkie (some would say to a concerning extent), an X (formerly Twitter) addict, and a regular listener to political podcasts, which means that sometimes I feel I am almost too up to date with political events.
For many of my peers, this is just not the case. I spoke to a few peers and asked them about their experience with politics. Speaking to a second-year student, when asked if she would consider herself politically engaged, she stated that she wouldn’t, as she wasn’t given an opportunity to learn about it in school and feels like it is increasingly hard to access unbiased information and thus to become engaged. She went on to explain that it was increasingly hard to find the time to commit to trying to “self-teach” herself politics. However, what is particularly noteworthy, and a theme among those I spoke to, was that she would like to become more politically engaged, as she feels “clueless sometimes” when the political events are more complex. She also stated that while when she was younger, she did not feel it was as important to be politically engaged, but as she has got older, she feels it is increasingly important to be engaged as she is starting to feel the effects of government policy where she previously wouldn’t – such as with the cost of bills and the current crisis faced by renters in Glasgow. When asked if she would vote in the next election, she said she would, as she feels it is important, but when she voted previously, she voted for the Green Party, mostly because she felt that she “didn’t understand enough to make a big decision”. She concluded that maybe she is not “making the most of [her] vote” because she doesn’t feel informed enough.
I spoke to another one of my peers who echoed similar concerns – she felt that she had been “left behind” when it came to her political education, and now feels she doesn’t want to ask “stupid questions”. She also agreed that she would like to become more politically aware, but again, does not know where to start. When asked if she would vote in the next election, she was unsure, as she doesn’t feel that she understands enough to make a decision as important as voting. I also spoke to an international student, who stated that while he would consider himself politically engaged and will be carrying out a postal vote to ensure his voice is heard in his home country, he does find that he pays less attention to British politics. He explained that he finds it more important to keep up with what is going on at home and globally. This speaks to the wider issue of young people in the UK being disengaged, even when they would consider themselves politically aware.
Ultimately, it appears that a large reason why people don’t feel that they are able to be politically engaged is a lack of political education in schools. This is an issue that has been emphasised among people I have spoken to, both formally and informally. When I was at both primary and secondary school, the most political education we got was explaining the passage of a bill through the Houses of Parliament, and the occasional mock debate to explain the roles of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and the Speaker. There was never anyone explaining what a manifesto was, how the voting system works, or even what the political parties stood for. As I have previously mentioned, I owe my level of political understanding to my A-Level in Politics, where I had incredible teachers who ensured that we all left with a well-rounded political education. But, as one of the students interviewed mentioned, not everybody does an A-Level or Higher in Politics, and so for the average person, they leave school with little to no knowledge of politics and how to become engaged. If schools spent time explaining the roles of people in government, the history of the political parties, how the voting system works, and where to find resources to help you vote, I firmly believe that we would have a generation of politically engaged people.
It is also apparent that many people have no idea where to start to learn about politics. It can be daunting to try and find information, but there is information out there, and it is easily accessible. Personally, I follow multiple different politics accounts on social media but I think that the best two for people trying to understand politics are @simplepolitics and @tldrnewsuk on Instagram. They post simple, unbiased updates on politics, with explainers to help you understand what is going on. I would also recommend Newscast – a daily news podcast by the BBC which will often talk about politics with BBC journalists explaining what is happening. They also have a misinformation correspondent, who will come on and debunk news occasionally, which is reassuring for people who might be concerned about how trustworthy what they are reading is. Ultimately, there are many different ways to get educated, but the most important thing is to ensure that your news is coming from quality sources – broadsheet newspapers and TV news channels are the best place to start.
We are rapidly approaching a general election, and this election is the first since 2017 where there is a chance that there isn’t going to be a Conservative majority in Westminster, and the first time since 2007 that there isn’t going to be an SNP majority in Scotland. This means that whatever side of the political spectrum you fall on, it is vital that people, especially young people, turn out to vote. Young people aged between 18-24 only saw a turnout of 47% in the 2019 general election, which is not an encouraging statistic in itself, but when compared to the turnout of people aged over 65 (74%), it is concerning. Young people are the future, and by not exercising their voice, they are allowing their prospects to be limited by those who may not have the same priorities as them.
So, this is a message to all young people. Go out and vote! There is no better way for you to express your opinion than participating in democracy. It is vitally important to show politicians that they need to be legislating for everyone, not just middle-aged and older people. Decisions made by politicians will affect you, no matter if you have voted or not, so spend some time during this next election cycle reading the manifestos of different political parties, and deciding which one you most closely align with. Politics doesn’t have to be scary.