Why Young People Must Use Their Voice In The General Election

It’s been an unusual week in politics, which is saying something considering the last 12 months. After the rapper and grime artist JME had brunch with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and took over his Snapchat at the weekend, young people have actually been talking about it. Other grime artists, including Stormzy, Novelist and AJ Tracey, have also helped to pique teenagers' interest in the upcoming general election by speaking out and publicly backing Corbyn.
But what can we mere mortals do to encourage the next generation – and the less interested members of our own cohort – to wield their political influence on 8th June? With less than a week to go until the deadline to register to vote, the question has seldom been more urgent.
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This is a subject particularly close to Billie JD Porter's heart. In the aftermath of last year's EU referendum result, the journalist and filmmaker travelled the country to speak to young people about the big issues and their engagement with the political process. "One of the main things I noticed was how many of them said to me: ‘Wow, no one's ever asked me my view on that’, or ‘I didn’t think I cared about politics’, or ‘I didn't realise politics encompassed so much of my life’. Lots of them found it inspiring just to be given the opportunity to speak about it," Porter told Refinery29.
Now, she's set her sights on getting young people interested and engaged in the general election. Her campaign, Use Your Voice, has received online backing from the likes of Emma Watson and Cara Delevingne, and last night teamed up with ThinkNation to host an urgent summit addressing the state of political engagement across the UK. Students and young people joined thought leaders from the media, education and politics to tackle the question of how we can get more young people voting in the general election and generally more engaged in politics.
Young people are the least likely to make it to the polls, with 18-24s almost half as likely to vote as those aged 65 and over (it was 43% vs 78% in the 2015 general election); only around two-thirds (64%) of young people voted in last year's EU referendum, compared with 90% of over-65s. Porter believes a large part of the problem is that young people don't see themselves represented in Parliament or believe the language of politics speaks to them. “I don’t see myself in Parliament and I’m a middle-class white woman who reads The Guardian,” she says, referencing the fact that just 29% of MPs are women. As a result, most young people across the country told her they believe all politicians and parties are untrustworthy.
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Young people of colour feel a similar way, says Leah Cowan, politics editor of gal-dem, who spoke at the event. "Despite having more MPs of colour in Parliament than any other time in history, there's still a huge problem in that the young people of colour I speak to don’t see themselves represented by politicians," she told Refinery29. "For the most part – understandably – young people and adults alike cannot relate to the way politicians communicate both in the house and to the media." Thus, electoral democracy in the UK is far from "democratic", she says – as it stands, only an elite few understand its systems and processes.
Inadequate – and often non-existent – political education in state schools is also a huge problem, Porter believes. "Pretty much every single young person I spoke to thought politics should be taught in schools." Politics is included in the PSHE curriculum, but it's often not a priority for teachers and may be neglected altogether. "Some of them said they didn't want to vote and never would, but they still wanted to understand how it works – a basic approach to the system, how it works, local elections versus general elections, that kind of thing."
This lack of sufficient education means most young people don’t feel confident discussing political issues and may even believe it's "not their place" to wade into the debate. "My aim is to make sure no one feels too scared to talk about politics," says Porter. "I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve shied away from it in the past, because I went to a shitty school and left when I was really young. I didn’t know the slightest bit about politics."
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The writer and digital influencer Gemma Styles agrees that lack of confidence is a huge issue. "One of the main messages coming from young people I've spoken to online is concern over gaps in their own knowledge," she told Refinery29. "Some have even said to me they think it would be unfair of them to vote because they don't know as much as other people; you don't need a politics degree, or need to shout loudly about it all the time, to earn the right to an opinion."
But it's worth remembering that a minority of young people will never experience this lack of confidence. Shelly Asquith, vice president for welfare at the National Union of Students, says: “We have to start talking about class again,” referring to the fact that private school students often receive a stellar political education and are taught from a young age that their opinions matter. Their schools have debating chambers and semi-serious mock elections, and politics is generally considered a normal part of life.
Some believe lowering the voting age to 16 could enthuse the younger generation. Just look at Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, in which 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds voted (more than the 54% of 18-24-year-olds and 72% of 25-34-year-olds). An overwhelming majority of the young people Porter has met believe 16-year-olds should be able to vote – especially considering the life-altering EU referendum result – but Theresa May ruled out the prospect earlier this week. As Areeq Chowdhury, chief executive of WebRoots Democracy, a campaign for digital voting, said last night, the government has no incentive to open up or change a system that’s working in its favour.
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So what specific things should be done to get more of us, and young people in particular, talking about politics? Porter believes more celebrities and those with online and media influence should be stepping up to the plate ahead of the election. "The biggest people in this country, for better or worse, are reality TV stars and none of them are commenting on it. It’s not like you have to say you’re backing a party, but comment on the fact that the deadline to register to vote is coming up." Despite the positive response she's received from influencers to her own campaign, Porter says she can tell many celebrities feel like it’s a taboo to get involved in politics. "We’re in a weird time where no one wants to be vocal about what's going on and if one artist tweets about animal rights, suddenly they’re an 'activist'! You can understand why they shy away from getting involved because they don't want to be questioned." But she believes anyone with a big public following should be using it for good.
One person who has been using her digital influence for good is Gemma Styles, who has already reminded her 3.5m Twitter followers and 3.9m Instagram followers of the need to register to vote. Others have also been using the #bloggerswhovote hashtag over the last few weeks to reach those who may not otherwise get political information. But even those of us without millions of followers can make a difference, says Styles. "A tweet about registering to vote mixed in among your usual social media posts doesn't have to be a big deal and I think it would help to remind friends, start conversations and show first-time voters, especially, that voting doesn't have to be complicated – and they have just as much of a place at the polls as anybody else."
We all need to be talking to our younger siblings, relatives and friends about the issues affecting us ahead of the election, Porter adds. Use Your Voice has also created a toolkit with help from the London School of Economics, the University of Kent and the University of Sheffield, aimed at answering young people's key questions about politics, which has been peer-reviewed by people from all political backgrounds and is free for anyone to share.
And even if you meet a young person who isn't planning on voting, tell them to hold their nose and think of their loved ones as they mark that 'x' in pencil. "Someone may get sick and need treatment, or want to study abroad or go to university. All these decisions are so greatly impacted by who’s in power," Porter says. "We need to hammer this home to young people."
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