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Do you remember the first time?

With the possibility of a first new government in a generation, are today's young people engaged or embittered? A non-voter hits the road in search of those doing it for the very first time

Taken from May 2010 edition of Dazed:

Sunday, March 7 – LONDON 

The general election looms. At the last, half the electorate didn’t vote and I was one of them. I’m 26. My political psyche has been trashed by the traumas of a fluctuating economy and wars waged by half-witted psychopaths. The two-party state is to blame. I’m disenfranchised, and it’s not my fault. I have never voted, probably never will.

But who cares? The future belongs to the young. That’s what this trip is about – nine 18 to 22-year-old potential first-time voters, living the length and breadth of Britain. Their hopes, dreams, views collected via coach trips, train rides and the Dazed technicolour Smart Car. I also want to ask them: am I right to feel the way I do? On early spring days like these, as the sunshine clears away the dregs of winter, I’m not so certain.

Late in the afternoon, I meet Elly Robson, a 21-year-old Climate Camp activist (born in Thatcher’s backyard of East Finchley) at London’s Liverpool Street station. Since every single cafe we go to is rammed, we end up in a bistro aside a secluded corporate courtyard: one of those places that charges you £5 for a latte. Elly is cagey. “I’ve had it before,” she says, “at a protest where a reporter followed me, asking questions, promising nothing but good things and then went ahead and painted me like an idiot.”

She isn’t. Talking about her hopes for the future, Elly discusses the model of consensus voting (the system that Climate Camp uses) as a viable alternative to our “binary democracy”. Essentially, it involves smaller groups feeding ideas back into larger ones, and dispenses with chairpeople in favour of “facilitators, who let the discussion flow through them”, so that everyone has a voice. Crucially, there are no opposing parties.

“It means that you’re working together, not against each other,” she says. “When I joined Climate Camp, it changed my perception of how politics could work. It just takes a different framework. Our current system seems to distance people.”

But what about the stuff you guys do, like chain yourselves to power stations? That’s hardly democratic.

“We’re not a lobbying group,” she replies. “And yeah – sometimes we do use direct action. But it’s far more anti-democratic that people aren’t given the opportunity to be involved in our system. Neither of the two parties wants change, because it’s not in their interest. So what do we do?”

Monday, March 8 – GLASGOW

Highlights of the ten-hour coach drive: a pit-stop at Preston’s decaying Futurist bus depot; the Peak District; the blocked bus toilet that flooded the lower deck with the stink of shit.

Amid this, I notice papers filled with headlines that one of James Bulger’s killers has been charged with possession of child pornography. History repeating: after the murder trial in 1993, Blair condemned it as evidence of “Broken Britain”. Today, David Cameron spins the same pre-fight garbage.

Glasgow, early evening. I feel like death and I’m in an internet café organising two things. First, a meeting with my interviewee – 19-year-old Maya Forrest – a member of Conservative Future Scotland. The second? Somewhere to sleep. I give an old friend a call. He sends me the number of mate who says he’ll put me up. No response. I leave to meet Maya in the city centre.

Maya finds me lost on Queens Street and takes me to a bar where a co-Young Tory called Ross is also waiting in case I’m just a crank.

“You can’t dwell on the past, you need to look to the future, and the Conservatives are the party for change” – Maya Forrest

So, what is a Glaswegian girl doing in the Conservative party? “Well, both my parents are Labour voters,” she says. “But through school I found that what I knew about the Conservatives was mostly rumour.”

Such as? “That they’re a party for the rich,” she replies. “My parents fail to realise that Thatcher stopped the country subsiding failing industries and losing us money. Nowadays, we’ve got a great service industry in Glasgow.”

Great, I think – I push on. Aren’t you worried if Cameron wins, that he’ll sell you down the river by giving Scotland full independence just to secure the Tories’ grip on the rest of the UK?

“No,” she says. “I don’t believe he’d ever do that.” I’m not so convinced, but right now it’s midnight. This guy still hasn’t called, and I’m thinking about which doorway to kip in. Ross offers me his couch. I procrastinate. Then, a phone call – my friend’s friend tells me to meet him by Buchanan Street tube. Ross and Maya walk me there.

“You can’t dwell on the past,” she says as we part. “You need to look to the future, and the Conservatives are the party for change.”

Tuesday, March 9 – BIRMINGHAM

The Midlands, the halfway mark: a secret nation within a nation. Yesterday, the bus stopped at Watford Gap, where a sign only pointed north and south.

I spend two hours crawling through the Bullring trying to find cheap internet, only to discover my wallet has disappeared. The sum of all fears realised: I’ve been jacked 150 miles from home.

Luckily, Dominic, the guy I’m interviewing, is a rare kind soul, who meets me at Birmingham New Street Station and pays for my fare to Leicester where I’m staying tonight. You can’t count on finding people like Dom, but then again, you can’t expect to be robbed by bandits either.

At 21, Dominic Grego has lived here all his life, mostly in suburban redbrick Moseley. He’s from a mixed racial background: his mother secondgeneration Jamaican, his father half-Irish, half-Italian.

“First and foremost, I’m a Brummie, though,” he says. “I’ve got a sense of multiple identities, but they all meld into one. People from here are Brummies before being British.”

Last year, Dom deferred his university course at Sussex in Law and French to come home, “get a grip” and play saxophone in a couple of local bands. “I needed to find direction,” he continues. “I’d always wanted to be a barrister but I was never sure why. I’m gonna go back, but I’m worried that when I finish I’m going to have all this extra debt and no job.”

And what about this general election? Is it really an opportunity for you to address these issues or just a waste of time?

“I’m a sceptic,” he says. “But I’m going to use my vote. There’s a clear lesser of two evils here, and I know which one I prefer and it’s not the one offering to cut taxes. I’m not a great thinker, but I’ve got my values. All I want the next government to do is make this process a bit more accessible, so people have got a clue what it is they’re doing. I don’t feel like any of them are really speaking to me or anyone at the moment.”

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Wednesday, March 10 – LEICESTER CITY COLLEGE

Things got better after Birmingham. Mischa, the photographer, turned up to take 18-year-old Muslim sixth-former Shamin Mangia’s photo and drive me around the remaining cities. However, he was late after getting lost and had to chase after Shamin, who had left for a dentist appointment, in our psychedelic Smart Car – a feat I feared was going to end in Mischa being apprehended as a stalker. Luckily, he was not. Here is a brief transcript:

Hi Shamin, I’m 26...

Shamin Mangia: Oh, are you…?

Uh, yes… And I’ve never voted, I’m not going to and no one so far has been able to change my mind. Can you?

Shamin Mangia: Well, what do you want out of life? Do you want to live in a country that’s under-developed?

Not really.

Shamin Mangia: Well, you won’t know then unless you try.

But is fear a good reason?

Shamin Mangia: I don’t know, but I’d be a right hypocrite to say otherwise. I’ve had my doubts. ‘Why should I vote?’ I thought. ‘That’s for old people!’

So, are you really interested in this general election?

Shamin Mangia: You mean Labour and all that? I’m a bit interested... I’ve been reading up on it.

So, what do you think? Do you know who your local MP is?

Shamin Mangia: Gordon Brown?

No, your local MP.

Shamin Mangia: Oh no, sorry, I don’t. But I guess this is a chance us to be heard. Preparing for this has made me realise that my vote counts.

And what do you hope the next government does?

Shamin Mangia: Ban smoking, it’s disgusting and leads people to other things.


Shamin Mangia: Yeah, that’s where it starts.

So, is crime a big problem?

SM: Yeah, and knives are the worst. Anyone can pick them up. I suppose they’re mainly for defence, but how do you get into the mindset of these people?

I don’t know. I don’t understand your generation. I grew up with VCRs and CDs. You had the internet and mobile phones.

Shamin Mangia: It’s true. My sister is your age, and she’s so much more grateful. I’m always being told, ‘Your sister never had that!’

Reminds me of what my mum says – that people died so I had the right to vote.

Shamin Mangia: Maybe she’s right.

“Change will only happen through popular uprising. We might lead comfortable lives, but if that comes at the prices of others’ freedom then I want no part in it” – Christiana Spens

Thursday, March 10 – SWANSEA, CAMBRIDGE

One day. Two cities. Three interviews. Last night we drove from Leicester to Swansea to be here this morning to meet Luke James, a Welsh Nationalist and member of Plaid Cymru’s youth group, Cymru X, at his student elections. It’s not the car’s fault – it’s designed for cities. It’s holding up. But I’m not sure if we are.

Swansea, we find Luke on campus, a Brutalist wet dream. Luke is open about his hatred of the union with Britain.

“We’ve never got a good deal out of being part of the UK,” he says. “New Labour don’t care – they’re London taskmasters. People still vote Labour here because of Thatcher. I don’t want independence for the sake of it, but we can’t afford a government that’s not 100 per cent committed to Wales.”

Onward, the Kingsley Amis route, Swansea to Cambridge, to meet another author, Christiana Spens. Only 22, she has already published two books and is studying philosophy but doesn’t know what to make of politics any more.

“I’m not enthusiastic,” she says. “I used to be, but after the anti-war marches I supported were ignored, I lost faith and started writing, which gives me a greater sense of justice. And there are lots of other creative people out there too, helping to make society more transparent.”

Perhaps she’s right, but I’ve still not found an answer to my question, and the finishing line is just around the corner, in the grounds of King’s College, where Jody McIntyre, 18, non-student, a journalist with cerebral palsy and just back from eight months writing in Gaza, is waiting.

“Palestine is the most important issue for me,” he explains. “But I feel strongly about this country, too. We have no democracy. On issues like Iraq, the two main parties are in agreement. Change will only happen through popular uprising. We might lead comfortable lives, but if that comes at the prices of others’ freedom then I want no part in it.”

Jody was visibly indignant – tears of anger down his cheeks. Moments later, we were kicked out of King’s for taking photos. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that the popular front that Jody is hoping for doesn’t exist. Many are disillusioned, but few enraged. They just want to participate in a meaningful way that one singular election could never, ever solely provide. So will I vote? Probably not. Politics is the personal, and to me that means more than ticking a ballot sheet.