The establishment loves to accuse 18-24s of being apathetic – but with the way the system is designed and how it’s discussed, who’s surprised?
Following last year’s referendum, it was falsely reported that only 36 per cent of those aged 18-24 turned out to vote on Britain’s place in Europe. It was a damning, widely circulated statistic, smoothly regurgitated by an older generation desperate to point a finger at a youth that they don’t trust, don’t understand and don’t want to know.
In reality, the youth turnout figure was nearly twice as high. According to research conducted by the London School of Economics, around 64 per cent of young people voted on June 23, with over 70 per cent of them choosing to side with remaining in the European Union. However, compare that to the 90 per cent turnout of those aged 65 and over (64 per cent of whom voted to leave) and you see where the battle was won. False stats or not, when it comes to getting out and voting, Generation Y is playing catch-up.
Thanks to those numbers, an entire generation has been rounded up and collectively labelled as politically apathetic. In fact, if you type “define apathy” into Google, the example sentence it provides you with is literally “widespread apathy among students”. Even Google thinks you don’t care. But it isn’t strictly true. In fact, it’s not even nearly true. It’s wrong.
To be apathetic – and for the sake of continuity, let’s use Google’s definition – one must feel a “lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern” towards the given subject, which in this case, broadly speaking, is politics. To display apathy is to overtly and consciously opt out; it is to be offered the opportunity to be politically active and reply with “no, but thanks”. But the way in which the modern British political system operates, it’s no wonder that young people naturally feel distanced.
“The snap election has been deliberately called to not give young people enough time to get properly informed and make a thought-out decision” – Billie JD Porter
“The system is so complex, so convoluted,” explains Lizzie Hodgson, founder and director of ThinkNation, an organisation that seeks to bring young people, creatives and thought leaders together to tackle the issues that impact on everyday life.
“It’s almost like an imposter syndrome. We all have imposter syndrome. People say they can’t get involved because don’t have something to say, but that is something – and it says it all. If you feel like you don’t have anything to add, question why you don’t have anything to add. You’re the people we need to be hearing from the most.”
When it comes to the way that politics is discussed by the establisment there’s something inherently menacing about it. ‘Austerity’, ‘gerrymander’, ‘Hansard’, ‘mandate’, ‘first-past-the-post’; Westminster jargon, for the most part, feels impenetrable and dull. Pair that with politicians themselves and it’s no wonder that a number of demographics are immediately switched off. It’s loud, it’s elite, it’s tribal; in UK politics, you’re expected to pick a side and stick with them, but it can feel as though there}s no-one to support.
For young people – many of whom haven’t even begun to consider the heady complexities of the British political system – politics is overwhelming from the get-go. “It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they’re not given the opportunity and they’re made to feel that they have to be these experts,” says Hodgson. “It’s this big last taboo. ‘We can’t talk about politics, because we might step out and get ridiculed.”
With no kind of compulsory school learning in place, kids hit 18-years-old the victims of a strange kind of neglect. You aren’t trusted to have formed an opinion at 16, but two years later you’re expected to be self-taught. The historical significance of The Vote goes without saying, but the understanding of how politics tangibly affects people’s lives on the daily often goes overlooked.
Alice Head, was 19 during the 2015 general election. She didn’t vote. “I got so baffled just registering to vote. I wasn’t sure whether I needed to get a postal, I didn’t know where to send it if I did – it was all just too much. But it kind of gave me an excuse not to vote. It gave me the chance to hide the fact that I hadn’t yet formed a political opinion of my own and was embarrassed by that. There’s no kind of education in place, no kind of support – nowhere to turn to. It sounds bad, but not voting solved that problem.”
Tom Hendra, 20 at the time, didn’t either. “There’s no effort to bring it to students or young people. There’s a crazy amount of learning and preparation when it comes to politics and you’re just expected to know it – if you haven’t been exposed to that before, you don’t know it. When they call an election, there’s never enough time to learn.”
“Even little things, like calling elections in the middle of exam periods. It’s like they don’t want to give you the time to teach yourself.”
Along with Hodgson, Journalist and filmmaker Billie JD Porter is exploring the state of disenfranchisement across the UK. Use Your Voice, a scheme led by both Porter and ThinkNation, was set up to shine a light on the problems faced when it comes to consuming politics and encouraging them to use their vote. As well talking to young and people up and down the country, Use Your Voice has also designed voting toolkit, which helps outline the basics of the political system for young people in the UK.
“There’s no kind of education in place, no kind of support – nowhere to turn to. It sounds bad, but not voting solved that problem” – Alice Head
“I very, very small-mindedly thought that when I set out to do the project, I might meet loads of young people who actually didn’t give a fuck, but I was so overwhelmed by the response that they actually really do – they’re just not given the tools to work out how to get involved,” Porter explains. “They’ve been done a disservice.”
“The snap election has been deliberately called to not give young people enough time to get properly informed and make a thought-out decision. Of course it suits politicians not to engage with young people. The older vote has been more reliable for them for years. It’s this vicious circle: young people not voting because no politicians are speaking to them and politicians feeling like there’s no point speaking to them because they’re guaranteed votes are pensioners and people over 60.”
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which young people feel unprepared, unqualified and unequipped. Imagine, at 18-years-old, your first experience of the British system is tuning into a broadcast live from parliament, in which a room full of rich, white men are jeering each other. These people – elected to represent you – clearly don’t come from your world and don’t seem to be making any effort to broaden their horizons. Plus, you live in a constituency that has been Tory since the beginning of time, with no sign of ever changing. And you don’t really the know first thing about where to start, but the general election is a month’s time, sandwiched between two of your meatiest exams. Good!
If finding the whole thing a bit much is apathy, then so be it. But honestly, what did you expect? The way in which British politics is designed alienates by its nature. In a system devoid of ways to increase and promote accessibility, is it really any wonder so many young people feel so far away?