By Charlie Oliver (@rlieoliver), Telefonica millennial leader
Following the Scottish referendum, where 16 and 17 year olds were given the opportunity to vote for the first time, the question of getting young people more engaged and active in government is very timely. Why was the turnout at the Scottish referendum 85% and then only 50% at the Clacton-on-Sea by-election a month later (this was considered high for a by-election!)?
In my view, it is down to two main factors. First, while modernising their policies, politicians also really need to differentiate themselves. Second, young people that are active in politics need to do more to unite their efforts to maximise the impact of their message.
Politicians are becoming less relevant – they fail to represent the diversity, priorities and attitudes of modern Britain, especially British young people. To resolve this, political parties need to stand for something and stop drifting to the centre. According to new data from Telefónica’s Global Millennial Survey (GMS), only 1% of millennials in the UK think that political freedom is the most important issue facing the country. In other words, the UK does not have an issue with political freedom. In almost all cases, if someone is legally able to vote, there is not much to stop them.
Nevertheless, again according to the GMS, only 15% of millennials in the UK believe that actively participating in politics will make a difference in their community; and further just 29% believe that participating in elections will make a difference! This mindset meant only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted in the last general election.
They are not apathetic. This is because our political parties have more in common with each other than they do young people. The core interests of millennials are not visible across mainstream parties – issues like the environment, social inequality and education. At the Scottish referendum we saw a clear choice at the ballot box and this clearly played a role in the high turnout. People were voting between two starkly different options, explained by politicians that for once really came across as caring about the issues and the outcome.
It must be true, that the fewer people that vote, the less we live in an actual democracy. If politicians in government do not represent the views of the populace, including young people, our democracy cannot be in a healthy state and they therefore must take the lead in resolving this challenge.
However, the reality is that young people will never have a significant voice in government unless they vote. Democratic nations across the western world, including the UK, are for the most part heavily indebted, suffering from stunted growth, with welfare bills that continue to rise. I’m not saying I approve, but it’s understandable that politicians will continue to prioritise policies to address the needs of the voters that actually elected them.
To encourage young people to vote, we need to ensure that government and politics is a mandatory part of secondary education in our schools. Young people must be engaged and armed with the knowledge to filter through political spin and one-sided media coverage, but also to have an informed, contextualised opinion on matters that affect their future.
Young people also need to take ownership of the problem too. Those that are active need to do more to push issues of the greatest interest to young people up the agenda; and further to collaborate with each other to maximise the impact of their message, rather than minimising it by working apart. This would bring other young people along with them and attract greater media interest. We can’t wait for politicians to make everything happen.