Teenage politicians combat culture of apathy

As the UK Youth Parliament prepares to debate votes at 16, controversy rages over claims that politics is losing the public’s attention. What, or who, is behind the big turn-off?

On Friday, the House of Commons will host an ambitious programme of debates on the issues that matter to young people in the UK. From bullying and youth unemployment to lowering the voting age, the subjects are those closest to teenage concerns, and the conclusions reached will set the agenda for a year of campaigning.

But this is a debate with a difference: the participants will not, for once, be professional politicians but young people. The UK Youth Parliament brings together 11 to 18-year-olds elected by teenagers in every corner of the country, giving a voice to those too young to elect MPs.

Evidence shows that young people care about politics. They sign more petitions than other groups, attend more demonstrations and participate enthusiastically through every means other than voting. But when it comes to Westminster, many feel alienated and disillusioned. Just 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the last general election, compared to 76% of the over-65s.

And it seems that those who opt out have growing support in the adult world. First came Russell Brand, calling for revolution and declaring that British democracy was a stagnant and exclusive system.

Then Brand’s interviewer Jeremy Paxman shocked the political establishment by weighing in on the side of the comedian, whose views he had seemed to disdain. The Newsnight frontman admitted he had not voted in a recent election. Party politics is ‘tawdry’, he said, and ‘the whole green bench pantomime in Westminster looks a remote and self-important echo-chamber.’ Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader, accused Paxman of ‘sneering’ at the subject which provides BBC current affairs presenters with a good living.

Now yet another grandee has weighed in. Former prime minister John Major, whose own background was relatively humble, bemoaned the dominance in the ‘upper echelons of power’ of a privileged elite, implying that politics has become the narrow preserve of an homogenous group.

End of the party?

It’s not just a few disaffected people: traditional party politics has declining appeal across Britain. Since 1951 Conservative Party membership has plummeted from three million to under 100,000, for example. Political parties struggling to inspire the masses; Parliament dominated by political professionals; millions hopelessly disenchanted by the politicians who are supposed to represent them. Are we witnessing democracy’s slow death?

Perhaps. But some might say that this dissatisfaction is in fact a sign of healthily high expectations: citizens who reject what politicians are offering will look for new ways to change the world around them and their lot. This crisis of faith in the democratic process could shake up the system for the better – but only if generations of future voters and leaders care enough to make it happen.

You Decide

  1. Which of the quotes in our illustration do you agree with?
  2. Politicians are necessary for what Grayson Perry calls ‘tedious logistical problems like feeding and housing the poor and providing good healthcare and education.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Hold your own debate: This House believes the voting age should be lowered to 16.
  2. Read ‘If I Ruled The World’ in the links and write your own version.

Some People Say...

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’Winston Churchill”

What do you think?

Q & A

I agree: voting is pointless!
If you’ve thoroughly examined all the options and genuinely feel that you can’t endorse any party, that’s a legitimate decision. But don’t just dismiss the whole process out of hand. If you’re totally fed up, says campaign group Bite the Ballot, ‘vote in protest. Spoil your ballot. But don’t not vote. Once you vote, they’ll listen.’
How can I become a member of this Youth Parliament?
Every area of the UK elects representatives to debate and discuss the issues that matter to young people, and to campaign for change.

Word Watch

Green bench
In the debating chamber of the House of Commons the benches on which MPs sit are covered in green leather. The seats are red in the House of Lords.
Pantomime
Critics of Westminster politics often focus on the weekly verbal battle between the head of government of the day and the opposition leader at Prime Minister’s Questions. It regularly descends into a rowdy slanging match, with a global television audience that enjoys the jousting. Its defenders say it shows how robustly ministers are held to account by parliament.
John Major
Conservative prime minister from 1991 to 1997, Sir John (he was knighted after stepping down) was brought up in Brixton, South London, and went to a grammar school. But he left with three O-levels and worked his way up through banking before going into politics.

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