By Jacob Flannery
Questions over why young people don’t vote have become a customary part of the run-up to the General Election. “People fought and died to get the right to vote and I would encourage anyone at the age of voting to use their vote” says Emma McClarkin, Conservative MEP for the East Midlands region. Yet with less than half of those between the ages of 18 and 24 turning out to vote in the last General Election, it is a plea that may fall on deaf ears.
McClarkin is the youngest member of the European Parliament representing the UK having been an activist for the Conservative party from a young age. She shared her views as to why she feels young people are not engaging with politics: “I think there is a general apathy amongst the public when it comes to politics at the moment particularly when it comes to young people… I sometimes think that when we talk about pensions and the economy it all sounds very serious and maybe young people think it’s for an older generation to be worried about rather than being relevant to them. When actually all of these decisions really impact on their lives and it’s our job to sell that to them and make them engage with the political system”.
With pensions a huge political topic recently and wide media coverage of the new State Pension introduced by the current government, much of the media content and discussion leading towards the election has focused upon an older age group. Jazza John, digital manager at Bite The Ballot, a project set up to re-brand politics and prove that young people do care about improving democracy, said: “There is a perception that nobody really fights for the issues that young people specifically care about. Issues like tuition fees, subsidised youth clubs and the education maintenance allowance being scrapped has made it very difficult for young people to empathise with a political class which seems to be very homogeneous, and seems to be saying a lot of the same things.”
The tuition fees, which have risen up to a maximum of £9,000 since 2012, have been an issue regarded highly amongst young people aspiring to move into tertiary education. The fee rise, which sparked protests across the country, may accredit to the belief that there is a lack of support for the younger generation. McClarkin shares the concern of the youth, but believes inaction is no way to voice our worries. “Perhaps there is a sense amongst young people that they don’t feel listened to or recognised or represented, and I absolutely want to say to them, ‘look if you have a voice and if you have a vision you want to share your views on then please engage with us and go out and vote and let us know what you think.'”
The fundamental issue is that with a lack of young voters, a democratic society is harder to achieve. Some 76 per cent of people aged 65 and over voted in the last general election compared to only 44 per cent of young people age between 18 and 24, resulting in fears that young people are not being represented fairly. However Jazza pointed out that the only way for this to change is for young people to vote: “if you want things to change and feel you’ve had a rubbish deal in the past five years then the only way that you’re going to be able to change things is by engaging with politics.”
His opinion is not shared by all public figures, in particular celebrity and political activist Russell Brand who has spoken out about the current political system, criticising politicians for “serving the needs of corporations” and also publicly advertising that he himself has “never voted, and never will”. This political stance has received large amounts of criticism from a range of different people and political parties. John Lyndon, formerly known by his stage name Johnny Rotten, referred to Russell’s refusal to vote as, “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”.
McClarkin says not voting is a potentially dangerous notion: “what I think is dangerous about people saying don’t vote and don’t engage with the system because the system is broke, is that they are never going to affect any change. Nothing will change, in fact it will only get worse because you are allowing fewer and fewer people to make decisions for the many, and the whole point of having a vote and everybody being able to have their say is that they can decide the direction that the country goes in.”
Tackling the lack of young people voting by encouraging more within the 18-25 age bracket to vote is a concept shared by both Jazza and Emma. Bite The Ballot works with schools around the country playing political based games which aim to increase young people’s understanding of politics and the way a democratic society works. The project also hopes to encourage young people to vote in the forthcoming general election, Jazza added: “We think the earliest you can start engaging people, the better. We believe that if you catch young people just as they are coming into themselves, becoming adults and active members of society, then the more likely we are to have a more healthy engaged electorate further down the road”.
Emma also speaks with schools around the East Midlands area of the UK and described doing so as “one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.” She added: “I want the next generation that will be running this country to be fully up to speed with what the political systems are, what the issues are and how we can tackle these problems”. Encouraging young people to vote is a topic regarded as highly important by both Emma and Bite The Ballot, and with the general election and the deadline for young voters to register looming closer, the turnout of young voters on May 7th still remains uncertain.