For Democracy's Sake, Give Young People a Political Education

History is apparently written by the victors, but it’s also illustrated by the young. In the New Youth manifesto, Ch’en Tu-hsui employed a great metaphor by describing youth as a […]


History is apparently written by the victors, but it’s also illustrated by the young. In the New Youth manifesto, Ch’en Tu-hsui employed a great metaphor by describing youth as a vital cell in a stale body politic. He wrote in the reformist mood of early 20th century China, much of whose subsequent history, for better or for worse, has nonetheless been carried by a dynamic kicked in to life by the bitter young on May 4th, 1919.

Tu-hsui’s metaphor about youth engagement is relevant to the United Kingdom today. Pious parliament claims it’s passed the expenses scandal whilst MPs demand higher wages, at a time when the rest of the public sector is told there’s absolutely no alternative to cuts. Meanwhile, the relationship between ministers and criminal media is still under formal investigation; a few days ago Ipsos Mori reported that the former group are the least trusted, even given the scale of media abuses.

Trust and participation in politics is at an all-time low and our generation is inheriting this attitude. 60% of people between the ages of 18 to 24 don’t vote. 4,000,000 young people think their voice doesn’t matter; that politics is best left to an aloof Parliament filled mostly with ageing, wealthy men, as effective as chloroform when it comes to inspiring engagement. But for all they say politics is a waste of time, youth still teems with opinion. So why is participation so low?

Young people protesting about cuts to youth services in Southampton

Young people protesting about cuts to youth services in Southampton

In Southampton young people unified in a caustic and creative campaign after the Labour-led council recently voted to close youth services. Adults in the community facilitated youth opinion by explaining the situation to young service users, taking deputations to the local council and helping their views to be expressed in local media, but it’s precisely the community links which inspired them to take a stand which will be lost. We may find cuts will further disenfranchise underprivileged young people, making the problem more acute.

Last year the campaign Bite the Ballot signed approximately 3000 young people on to the electoral register. Most of them didn’t even know what it was before the campaign entered their classroom to demystify democracy. Another limb of the campaign canvassed opinion for  a youth manifesto and found that, despite a basic understanding of the UK political system, young people have articulate and informed views on politics, giving lie to ‘apathy’ and to suggestions youth are temperamentally unsuited for the vote.

A packed Youth Parliament session in the House of Lords chamber shows not all young people are disengaged

A packed Youth Parliament session in the House of Lords chamber shows not all young people are disengaged

Disengagement essentially comes from a stark absence of political education and facilitation; ‘apathy’ is euphemism which hides obstacles to participation. A democracy worth its name would give basic, non-partisan political education in state classrooms and encourage young people to take an interest in the political system. There’s cross party support for campaigns like Bite the Ballot and endorsement in high places, but it’s ultimately our responsibility to transcend our political differences and campaign for a political culture fit for our generation.