“Politics Matters” – especially for young people

Paul Wetherly

Political decisions have important consequences for society. Young people have specific interests and they need to be represented effectively in the political process. Year 10 school students at the ‘Politics Matters’ event at Leeds Met expressed some of those interests and concerns, and demonstrated an enthusiasm for political discussion.

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Does politics matter? And does it matter especially for young people? There are two ways of answering these questions. The first concerns the consequences of political decisions – does politics matter in the sense that political decisions have important consequences for society and for the lives of the individuals who make up that society? The second concerns the subjective attitude to politics and political engagement – does politics matter to individuals in the sense that they are interested politics and have a willingness to participate in it?

These two approaches are distinct but linked. There needs to be a sense that politics matters in the first way for it to matter to people. The more that political decisions are perceived as having important consequences for society the more it might be expected that people will take an interest in politics. On the other hand, if politics makes little difference and life goes on more-or-less as it would have in any case it might be expected that people will take little interest in politics. However politics can be seen to have important consequences for society and people can still decide, for various reasons, not to take an interest in it. People can also underestimate the impact of political decisions on their lives, as is suggested by the finding that only just over half of people agree that Parliament ‘debates and makes decisions about issues that matter to me’ (Hansard Society, 2014, p.5)

Deciding whether politics matters in these two senses is tricky because our answers depend on how politics is defined, what we expect from political decisions, and how we think about participation. Politics is fundamentally about the role of government, but a broad definition views politics as a more pervasive feature of social and economic life including settings such as the workplace or household. If we look for evidence of whether politics matters to people in terms of turnout at elections we may miss other forms of political engagement. People can have different views and expectations on what counts as an important consequence of political decisions.

PoliticsDay1

Thinking about politics in terms of government, it clearly matters in the first sense – government policies have important implications for society. For example, the outcome of the 2010 UK general election opened up a range of important social and economic choices and closed off others, particularly in relation to the response to the financial crisis. The contrary view, that politics does not matter, has been put in two ways: the coalition government has claimed that there was no alternative to ‘austerity’, and it has been argued that the economic policies of the main political parties were only marginally different. However, choices about the pace of deficit reduction, the overall balance between reductions in public expenditure and increases in taxation, and the specific areas of spending to cut and taxes to increase have had major consequences for our society. To take one example, on the basis of current policies and projections, government targets to reduce absolute and relative child poverty by 2020 have been judged unattainable (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, 2014). On the contrary, ‘child poverty rates .. are set to rise dramatically’ due to trends in wages and prices and benefit cuts, such that ‘by 2020, child poverty.. [is projected to] .. be around the highest ever recorded in the UK, and the highest for a generation’ (Save the Children, 2014).

When it comes to whether politics matters in the second sense, there is quite a lot of evidence of people’s level of interest in politics and participation, actual and potential. This evidence seems to show that politics matters to quite a low proportion of the population. In the latest Audit of Political Engagement (Hansard Society, 2014) 50% of respondents were ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ interested in politics, and 20% were ‘not at all interested’. In this sense politics matters least to young people: only 32% of those aged 18-24 years were ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ interested in politics. However these data have to be treated with some caution since their meaning depends on how the respondents understood the term ‘politics’. The results may mean that there is a low level of interest in formal or traditional politics dominated by the main political parties. On the other hand it can be argued that interest in politics is very widespread among the population in the sense that all people have opinions on a range of political issues. For example, most people have views on the nature, extent and causes of child poverty and whether the government should be doing more to ensure it is on track to achieve the 2020 targets. Young people certainly have an interest in political issues that affect them, such as tuition fees and employment prospects.

Turning to political engagement, there is a widespread perception among politicians and commentators of a democratic crisis – that disengagement poses a threat to the health of democracy and the legitimacy of elected government. The problem is often expressed in terms of electoral turnout, because voting is seen as the defining type of political engagement in a liberal democracy and the source of legitimacy of the elected government. The UK coalition government’s claim to legitimacy on this basis rests on the combined 59.1% of the vote achieved by the two coalition parties in the 2010 general election (Conservatives 36.1%, Liberal Democrats 23%). This majority support for the government among those who voted (though there was no option of ‘coalition government’ on the ballot paper) is unusual and the result of coalition. Normally the party of government with the majority of seats in the House of Commons has the support of less than half of the voters. For example, in 2001 and 2005 Labour governments were elected with 39.7% and 35.2% vote shares. However the legitimacy issue looks different if we take into account the non-voters. In 2010 the turnout was 65.1% (an increase of 3.7% on 2005), meaning that 34.9% of those eligible to vote did not turnout – what we might call the ‘non-party of non-voters’. In comparison to this ‘non-party’, the party with the largest share of the vote (the Conservatives) gained the support of only 23.5% of the electorate. And the two coalition parties between them were supported by a minority of the electorate (38.5%).


 

2010 UK General Election Outcome

Share of the vote (%) Share of the electorate (%)
Conservative 36.1 23.5
Liberal Democrat 23 15
Con + LibDem 59.1 38.5
Labour 29 18.9
Other parties 11.9 7.7
Votes for all parties 100 65.1
Non-voters 34.9

(Source: derived from House of Commons Library, 2011)

Should a 65.1% turnout be considered low, and as a problem? This depends, of course, on our theory of democracy – how we think democracy should work – and how we interpret the figure – what are the reasons for voting or not voting? The problem with non-voting is that voting is a way of expressing our political preferences, and since we do not know the preferences of non-voters we cannot know whether the election outcome represents the preferences of the people as a whole. A couple of ‘optimistic’ interpretations are along these lines: non-voting might be a symptom of satisfaction with the political system on the grounds that if people were unhappy they would do something about it by voting; or, we might assume that the people who don’t vote have the same range and balance of political preferences as those that do so that the outcome can be taken as reasonably representative. However both of these interpretations do not stand confrontation with some basic facts. There has been a long term decline in turnout so the satisfaction argument would seem to imply the surprising claim that levels of satisfaction with politics have been increasing. This is clearly not the case. The 2014 Audit of Political Engagement finds a low level of satisfaction: just “33% think that the system of governing in Britain works ‘extremely’ or ‘mainly’ well” (Hansard Society, 2014). It is more likely that non-voters are not satisfied with the political system and this is a reason for their abstention, but it is clear that many voters also share this dissatisfaction.

The idea that voters and non-voters are more-or-less alike in their political preferences is belied by the over-representation among non-voters of specific social groups, particularly the poor and young people – there are age and social class gradients. For example, in 2010 44% of young people (18-24 years) voted compared with 76% of the elderly (65+ years), and the difference by social class was 76% for social class AB as against 57% for DE (Ipsos MORI, 2010). So, apart from the overall level of legitimacy, low turnout matters because young people and the poor have distinct interests that are not represented in the election outcome and therefore are likely to be marginalised in decision-making. This is amply demonstrated by the experience of the (of questionable legitimacy) politics of austerity since 2010, the sharp end of which has been felt by young people while pensioners’ benefits have been protected.

‘Young people’ is not a homogeneous category with unified interests and preferences – problems of barriers to education resulting from the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the increase of university tuition fees, the closure or reduction of youth services, or the high level of youth unemployment do not affect all young people equally. Clearly social class makes a big difference. Still, these and other problems affect young people on a broad basis and there is clearly quite a strong sense of shared identity and interests. Across Europe, to varying degrees between countries, these interests have been expressed by the involvement of young people in protests against austerity. Far from not voting because they are satisfied or do not care, young people are angry.

Russell Brand was wrong – voting does matter. If there was the same turnout among young people as among the elderly this would not transform British politics but it might make politicians pay more attention to their interests. And since 16- and 17-year-olds clearly have interests to which the political system should be responsive, there is a strong case for lowering the voting age to 16. But, as shown by the example of protests against austerity, voting is not the only form of political participation. Here again the conventional wisdom on disengagement needs to be treated with caution, for although other forms of participation are still essentially minority activities there is evidence that it is the formal or traditional politics of parties and elections that people feel alienated from and that there is a switch to more informal types of engagement.

The Audit of Political Engagement (Hansard Society, 2014) identifies thirteen civic and political activities that provide a useful broad conception of politics, and a framework for measuring the extent of actual and potential engagement. In every case the potential engagement exceeds the level of reported activity, i.e people report that they would be willing to engage in various activities more if they felt strongly enough about an issue. Quite small minorities report having engaged in any of the activities during the past year, the most common being donating or paying a membership fee to a charity or campaigning organisation (20%). Overall, nearly half of respondents report having engaged in at least one of the activities.

The Audit of Political Engagement (Hansard Society, 2014) identifies thirteen civic and political activities that provide a useful broad conception of politics, and a framework for measuring the extent of actual and potential engagement. In every case the potential engagement exceeds the level of reported activity, i.e people report that they would be willing to engage in various activities more if they felt strongly enough about an issue. Quite small minorities report having engaged in any of the activities during the past year, the most common being donating or paying a membership fee to a charity or campaigning organisation (20%). Overall, nearly half of respondents report having engaged in at least one of the activities.

Political Activities: Actual and Potential (Source: Hansard Society, 2014, p.47, Fig.18)

chart

The audit reports a lower level of political engagement among young people than among any other age group. Only 32% of young people (age 18-24 years) had engaged in any of the activities, whereas the highest engagement (57%) was among the elderly (65-74 years). Nevertheless, the point is that voting is a very narrow measure of political engagement, and although political activity among young people remains low across the board there is evidence of other types of engagement . “Although voting remains the most common form of political participation for young people, their repertoires of political engagement have become more diverse: from consumer politics, to community campaigns, to international networks; from the ballot box, to the street, to the internet; from political parties, to social movements and issue groups, to social networks” (Sloam, 2013, p.5).

This brings us on to the “Politics Matters” event that we held on June 11 in collaboration with local schools. Groups of Year 10 students from five schools in Leeds participated in a programme of political discussion and debate which centred on students’ ideas for a new political party with a logo and slogan and proposals for three policies in a mini-manifesto. Some of the parties made a specific appeal to the interests of young people with education policies (tuition fees, GCSE grading, careers and life skills, citizenship) and lowering the voting age to sixteen. Other policy areas included immigration and asylum, environment and renewable energy, assisted suicide,poverty and inequality, drugs policy and the NHS. The winning school was Lawnswood with a proposal for a left-wing Union of the People party with the slogan ‘The people have had enough!’

 

Hansard Society (2014) Audit of Political Engagement 11. http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Audit-of-Political-Engagement-11-2014.pdf

House of Commons Library (2011) General Election 2010 (Final Edition) RESEARCH PAPER 10/36. http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/RP10-36/general-election-2010

Ipsos MORI (2010) How Britain Voted in 2010. http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2613/How-Britain-Voted-in

Save The Children (2014) A Fair Start for Every Child http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/A_Fair_Start_for_Every_Child.pdf

Sloam, J (2013) ‘The ‘Outraged Young’: How Young Europeans are Reshaping the Political Landscape’, Political Insight, vol.4, no.1.

Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (2014) Response to the consultation on the Child Poverty Strategy 2014 to 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/318062/2b_Poverty_Response_-_Final.pdf

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