Rare youth voices raised in party politics

As conference season draws to a close, youth political engagement is in the public eye. New stars like Rory Weal have taken the stage – but what does politics mean to most teenagers?

At the Conservative Party conference yesterday, young people were centre-stage: as the subject under discussion, that is.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, announced plans for tough 'bootcamps' to deter teenagers in danger of going off the rails. Delegates debated why some young people in English cities had taken part in rioting and looting over the summer. And Michael Gove, education secretary, laid out his vision of school reform.

But why weren't the young people themselves there to ask tough questions and offer up solutions?

A pupil from Burlington Danes in London, Quddus Akinwale, got a standing ovation for his contribution to a presentation on academy schools. But his age group is noticeable for its absence during the annual autumn gatherings of the three main political clans. The conferences are dominated by older generations.

The media seizes gratefully on any teenager who could one day be a future leader of Britain: every year some are thrust forward, among the polished colour schemes and frantic atmosphere of the conference centres, as the embodiment of forward-looking party politics.

The leading light this year was 16-year-old Rory Weal. His speech to Labour's ranks won comparisons with William Hague, who wowed the Tories when he was the same age. But days later, Rory was on the receiving end of negative stories in the Daily Mail, 'exposed' as the son of a wealthy property developer. It's a harsh reminder that life in the public eye is bruising, even if you are still too young to vote in elections.

This doesn't put off nearly 50,000 young members of Conservative Future, Young Labour, and Liberal Youth. A far cry from their politically disaffected stereotypes, these young people campaign, run for positions within their party, and discuss the finer details of public policy. Many dream about a career in politics.

Unsurprisingly, they're a minority. Eighteen to 24-year-olds are more likely to be first-time abstainers than first-time voters. Only 15% think UK governments are trustworthy, or treat young people fairly: 76% feel powerless to influence government decisions.

Even the involved minority don't always toe the party line. In the 1980s and 90s, the Liberal Democrat youth wing challenged the party on nuclear disarmament and decriminalizing cannabis. The Federation of Conservative Students became so extreme in their right-wing views they had to be disbanded.

It's my Party…

An aversion to party politics might not mean apathy. Many young people engage in more radical action than mainstream parties allow. They join protests over tuition fees, or campaign on the environment, wildlife or human rights.

To some, teenagers should be enjoying the freedoms and dramas of youth. Climbing the ladder of power and influence inside a particular party offers little room for such risk and experimentation. Should it be left to the cynical realism of later years?

You Decide

  1. Was Rory Weal brave, foolish or both to step onto the conference stage and into the political limelight? Here's a flavour of his treatment in the Daily Mail.
  2. How would you make a difference? Traditional party politics or radical campaigning?

Activities

  1. Design a poster encouraging teenagers to join the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or the Labour party.
  2. Write a manifesto for a youth party. What are your key messages? How might these work in the spectrum of wider political priorities – healthcare, welfare, business?

Some People Say...

“Politics is for the older and wiser.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are young people out of step?
No. Only 1.5% of Britons belong to a political party, one of the lowest rates in any long-established democracy.
What about non-party politics?
The UK has a youth parliament, where members represent different areas of the UK, but not a political party. They run campaigns and projects about things that matter to them and their communities. The Youth Parliament exists across the EU, and many other international organisations have youth wings. In the Model United Nations students debate issues and research policy.
What if I'm passionate about one issue?
You could campaign with Amnesty International, for example, start a Fair Trade stall for People and Planet, or become a youth volunteer with gay rights charity Stonewall. Find a group that shares your preoccupations.

Word Watch

William Hague
The UK's current Foreign Secretary has been involved in politics from a young age, famously catching the eye of Margaret Thatcher by giving a speech to the Conservative conference at only 16.
Apathy
lack of interest or engagement; boredom when faced with an issue.
Young Labour
The youth branch of the Labour party. Members are aged 15-27.
Liberal Youth
The young Liberal Democrats. Members can join at any age up to 26.
Conservative Future
The new youth wing of the Conservative Party. Members are aged 15-30.