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Have you got four minutes?

Sick of soundbites about the General Election? Tired of the tantrums and references to politics of the past? Research suggests that, on average, people actively engage with politics for only four minutes a week. But what about student voters? With many party policies promising to have a real impact on young people's futures, spend four minutes exploring the student vote with one of our leading political experts, Dr Oliver Daddow.       


Student activism is nearly as old as universities themselves. Generations of alumni have spent afternoons on the march demonstrating against national and international cause célèbres like apartheid, racism, nuclear power, the Cold War and the Poll Tax. 

But in the 2015 General Election, only half those aged 18-24 who could vote actually turned out. Only one in three eligible students voted. So are our current students and recent graduates politically inactive?

Changing the debate 

“The reasons for the low numbers are manifold and will be individual to each person. But the key reasons are apathy, a lack of trust in the political system and a sense that if they do vote, it doesn’t change anything,” says Dr Daddow (MA International Relations, 2000), Assistant Professor in British Politics and Security at the University. 

“The nature of the UK voting system, not being proportional, means they feel their vote doesn’t matter. It’s untrue but that’s how people can feel. Another reason is that many of the debates UK politicians have started to engage in, either intentionally or accidentally, exclude young people by the virtue of the issues covered, such as the debate on the triple lock on pensions. Student numbers at general elections have been on the wane for decades – the numbers for the over 65s are much higher, at around 70%. 

“The big frames of debate in this election tend to marginalise young people’s ability to engage. The best example is the accusation that Jeremy Corbyn is taking Britain back to the 1970s. That’s a frame of reference that will only be intuitively understood by older voters, and some politics students and politics nerds like myself. 

 

There’s a strong sense that the press and politicians talk past young people and not to them. Politicians need to do much more to engage young people on current issues using current frames of reference and recent history, rather than harking back to the past.

 

 

“The press is constantly giving younger people a diet of debate centred around the 1970s and 1980s – nationalisation, changes in education, the National Health Service, Thatcher’s battles with the unions, the Cold War and the Falklands War. I taught a course this semester on the Brexit debate, using original campaign materials from the 1970s and looking at key questions and political characters. My students were surprised at how little the debate had moved on, with questions like sovereignty, the economy and Britain’s role in the world. 

“Unless young people, who haven’t had the luxury or privilege of studying politics or engaged in any way with it at school, take the time to look at the key concepts behind the debates in the press, they see the headlines, don’t understand the core issues and disengage."

So what does appeal to young voters in Britain today?


“Public services, education and Brexit. It’s when students and young people get animated about those issues that we’ll see them turning out in higher numbers.”

Brexit


“I think it’s fair to say that Brexit will happen. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens are proposing second referendums on the Brexit deal. The Greens are also proposing to lower the voting age to 16/17 in that referendum so that would be a really encouraging way of getting young people back engaged with the Brexit process. It’s whether that would then transfer into a broader engagement in politics, and that’s always been the tricky thing for politicians to achieve.

“This is going to be an odd election in that it’s a Brexit election in which Brexit is not being talked about in terms of the detail required. So we’re asking parties to cost their plans, yet not one of them has a coherent solution or proposal of what they seek to achieve through Brexit. Also, the Brexit deal is well beyond their control, it’s down to our EU partners to shape the terms of this debate. So young people, indeed all voters, will have to take a view as they cast their vote on which party they think will get the least worst deal.”


Tuition fees

“Tuition fees is one of the top issues young people face, and one of the most likely factors to get young people out to vote. Young people are more likely to vote Labour anyway so it might help consolidate Labour support among younger voters. The breach of the tuition fees pledge by the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition has stung, and will continue to sting, a lot of young people and their parents.

“Jeremy Corbyn has said he’s pledging to abolish tuition fees, although the costings look a bit dodgy. The problem is that there are insufficient resources and we don’t yet know the terms of the Brexit deal. While I would never say ‘don’t trust a politician’s pledge’, be careful where you look for information justifying that pledge and its realisability. Politicians’ costings and manifestos are ideal wish lists, and you find that when they get into power things are often harder than they seem.” 


Leadership and credibility

 

“Issues around credibility and leadership are key – you can have the best pledges and manifesto promises to make the world a more peaceful, prosperous place but if you have a leader who is incapable of capturing that in a narrative or message which establishes his or her authority, the party’s not going to get into power. I think that’s probably where Jeremy Corbyn will fall down. 

“The student body I teach is naturally diverse. It’s a myth they’re all lefty liberals. The key thing I find about my students is that they’re very animated by certain issues at certain times. A few years ago it was the Iraq War and now it’s Brexit. But very few of them have established, long-held party affiliations. They’re quite happy to switch their vote to a party which best represents their view on one or two issues rather than a broader policy platform – the manifesto approach to politics could actually turn them off rather than on.”

Animating the youth vote   

 

“The idea of an election result being predetermined or very easy to predict is a fair point and can turn people off. But if you sit back and say ‘nothing will change if I vote’, things will change without you and it may be damaging. We’ve seen that the decline in young people voting has led to the introduction of policies and resources that favour older people, from the Education Maintenance Allowance to access to the National Living Wage for under 25s being cut. The more apathetic young people get, the less reason Government have to listen to their voices on the really key issues around economic and social welfare. 

 

It’s certainly a self-fulfilling prophecy that the fewer young people turn out to vote, the less Government, big organisations and the global community listen to their voices.



“One proposal to animate the younger vote is to have better education about politics in schools, something which goes well beyond the citizenship curriculum, and teaches students not just about the old stuff of left and right but about the importance of voting, the role of the vote and political parties. 

“Online voting would be the best way of getting higher turnouts. A kind of X Factor approach to voting has obvious benefits, but in the light of the recent NHS scandal, could be open to subversion, hacking or rigging.”

Shaping the future 


“You could interpret this election as a power grab by Theresa May to centralise power in the hands of herself and the Executive, over Parliament. But also to give her more leeway to deal with her right wing Eurosceptics. So in a sense, the election is about the extent to which Theresa May will be able to impose her vision of Brexit Britain on the future.

“If that puts you off and you oppose it, look at your constituency to help you decide what feels right for you. If you vote in a constituency where a Conservative is going to win by a landslide, the fact that you’re still registering your vote means something. While it’s easy to write politicians off as ignoring members of their constituency, if you register your vote and later go to talk to your MP about your views on Brexit, then you have an investment in it and can start to engage in a constructive discussion about the future. 

“Ask your politicians questions using the evidence you’ve got – that’s the way to engage.”


The School of Politics’ blog Ballots and Bullets features fascinating insights and analysis, informed by our internationally-ranked research, to help you understand the political dynamics that underpin the world in which we live.