So the popular saying goes. Every election cycle the public are hammered with articles and campaigns cajoling us to get out and vote. However, with the UK’s first past the post system many are prone to apathy as the argument ‘my vote won’t make a difference’ holds some weight – particularly if you support a challenger party in a safe seat.
In 2015 turnout was 66.1%, a relative high compared to the 59.4% rate in 2001 – the lowest in over 50 years. Since 1997 turnout has remained between 55-65%. Miles away from the halcyon high of 83.9% in 1950.
But for referendums it should be different. Although reported in districts it was the total votes that mattered in the outcome of the EU referendum – one person, one vote. Direct democracy as it should be.
Analysis of the voting patterns revealed stark truths. Younger voters simply didn’t go to the polls in the same way older generations did. In areas with the highest proportion of young voters, turnout was the lowest. An exit poll done by Sky, admittedly just a projection, placed 18-24yr old turnout at just 36% , compared to 83% for 65 and over.
If this is true, or even close to reality, it’s shocking.
In the short term the figures somewhat negate the argument that ‘the old stole the future of the young’ by voting to leave. The young didn’t fight for it.
It shows social media to be sound over substance and that young people are just not engaging with the political process in a significant enough way.
A new approach is needed. Social media campaigns – and frankly insulting mainstream campaigns aimed at a younger demographic – assume the audience is already engaged. For those who see politics as irrelevant, a Facebook post is unlikely to convince or educate.
Furthermore, as brilliantly articulated on Guido Fawkes, social media is an echo chamber with devastating consequences. We surround ourselves with people like us; if my friends aren’t interested in politics I am unlikely to be. Therefore shares, or posts or links on political topics pass me by.
In the wake of the referendum there have been calls to make voting mandatory to solve the participation issue. I disagree. The right to vote must necessarily include the right not to. Further, making participation mandatory won’t make people care. For this to happen education has to play a role. In the face of what seems to have been a failure of participation by 18-25 years olds, I think there is a strong argument for putting government and politics on the secondary school curriculum.
By educating students on the institutions and systems of politics and government they are given the opportunity to understand and learn, away from the rhetoric and bias, about how and why the subject affects them.
It is a failure of basic state education if students leave school with a notion that politics is something that doesn’t isn’t to do them of or that it is the reserve of the elite. It does them a disservice and drives a divide such as the one we have seen recently.
I’m not saying education will necessarily increase participation but it will mean young adults will come to a decision about their political positions armed with knowledge of the fundamentals of how their country is run and how they can influence it.
Less than a third of voters felt well-informed on the day before the referendum. True the EU is an issue of huge complexity but for so people to feel so uninformed shows the current approach isn’t working.
By placing politics on the curriculum it will underline that politics matters.
Maths is taught at school and although I’m sure very few adults will back themselves to come up with the right answer when faced with a quadratic equation, the vast majority are numerically literate. That is all I am advocating – the opportunity for everyone to become politically literate. To be given the foundation information necessary to build political opinions and make political decisions – even if it is the decision not to participate.
The referendum has destroyed the notion that politics is a standalone subject in which you are either interested or not, and from which you can separate yourself if you choose. If we can provide children with the information to allow them to navigate a new politics then maybe participation can become more than a Facebook status. If people are given the knowledge to know which questions to ask our leaders and systems then we can hold them accountable.
Harnessing an undeniable wave of activism can foster a generation of politically astute citizens. No one doubts the UK has a rough road ahead and that change is inevitable – the least we can do is provide an education which would give young people the tools to understand and determine what’s next. It’s up to them if they use them.