Skip to content

Raising the dead

5 February 2014

Why it’ll take more than Tinie Tempah to get young people voting.

I’m worried about the state of political engagement in the UK. A quarter of respondents to a recent Guardian/ICM survey said that they were instinctively bored about politics and politicians. As someone with an A-Level, BA and MA in the subject I agree – politics can be boring – but there is a difference between boredom and being turned off entirely.

Today (Wednesday 5th February) is National Voter Registration Day (NVRD), which campaigners hope will get 250,000 new (young) voters registered to vote. It’s a noble cause – encouraging young people to get out and vote can only be seen as a positive step in this generation of overwhelming voter apathy. Because, while Labour believes that simply allowing young people to vote will get them voting, they need to believe it’s worth voting – or all we’ll have are lower voter turnout percentages and more spoilt ballots.
The campaign is timely and positive, particularly given the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) this year. Currently you register to vote by household. From June (September in Scotland) you will register individually – although 35 million of us who are already registered to vote will be automatically transferred.

Two years ago Ed Miliband pledged that Labour would “embark on the biggest movement to get people registered to vote”, saying that people do not vote because they don’t understand what politicians can do to help them. This was immediately shot down by political academic Philip Cowley as akin to basing your electoral strategy on “raising the dead”. But in some ways Ed had a point: it’s up to politicians to give people a reason to get involved. Young people have never been as politically detached as they are today, which is strange given that there are more ways to get involved than even before. Social media provides an outlet for political discourse that allows the ever-so-opinionated to speak out – but you won’t get them into a polling station just because they tweet about Question Time once a week. So whilst Ed is right that politicians need to give credible reasons to drive engagement, it’s equally important to make sure these are communicated effectively.

NVRD is championed by many celebrity faces but it takes more to get people involved in politics than making it look shiny. It’s happened before with varying success. In the 1980s Red Wedge, a musical collective including Paul Weller and Billy Bragg and supported by Madness, The Smiths and Bananarama, encouraged young people to vote Labour but gave up when they lost again. Conversely the spectacle around Barack Obama’s election in 2008 saw countless celebrities speaking out, and voter turnout rising by 1.4%, though the skeptics would ask whether this would have happened anyway – American celebrities have always been prominent around election time.

What we really need is to encourage candidates who inspire, rather than repel, and who relate to young people from all walks of life. We need to better communicate the importance of political education via citizenship and PSHE, from earlier ages, and understand that this isn’t going to happen overnight. Communications and campaigns, like NVRD, will be vital but we need to be louder, bolder, or we’ll get nowhere. Politics can be inspiring, but few actually know that – we need a shift towards a more positive message.

I’m not saying we should lecture kids about the benefits of bicameral legislature, but we can’t sit and do nothing. Politicians and campaigners need to stop talking about how much they want to inspire young people into politics – it’s not just young people’s views that need changing but also politics itself. If we take a thoughtful approach to communicating the positive messages of politics – through long-term engagement that avoids a ‘quick fix’ – then we can hope for better progress.

David Button is a Political Consultant at Connect Communications, Forster’s Public Affairs partner