As violent political turbulence swirls across much of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the British political system finds itself increasingly at odds with its very own silent storm in a teacup.
In the UK, voting turnout amongst young people has plummeted, steeply declining since 1992. Following a measly turnout for the 1997 election of Blair and New Labour, the general election of 2001 saw the lowest turnout of young voters since 1918 – an alarming and unavoidable drop to just 59.1%. Indeed, a recent Electoral Commission report found that only 56% of 17-24 year olds are even registered to vote. Despite exhaustive attempts to lure in and attract the youth demographic, the major political parties just can’t seem to muster up the pulling power to engage young voters, and with the 2015 general election fast approaching.
It’s easy to see why young voters could have trouble relating with MPs and party politicians, aside from the superficial and literal gulf that separates them. When politicians do try to get ‘down with the kids’, the results are often as painfully awkward, unnatural and forced as the phrase ‘down with the kids’ itself. Cameron’s notoriously unsuccessful and stereotype-raiding Hug A Hoodie campaign springs to mind, not to mention Harriet Harman’s horrifically patronising and faintly sexist Pink Bus campaign, a shameless attempt to grab young women’s votes under the guise of feminism.
The dull plague of youth disengagement with party politics has led many cultural commentators to question the effectiveness and relevance of the British political system, especially in terms of representation. The UK system remains much the same as it always was, constructed around a complicated hierarchy of finance, class and cultural allegiance. There still exists a very real and entrenched political class; a class of career politicians who are ushered through the revolving doors of privilege and into the corridors of power based purely on hereditary merit or socioeconomic status.
This is why it’s so amusing to see a ‘man of the people’ politician exposed, to see Cameron daintily tiling a roof for a photo opportunity, to hear Boris reveal that he doesn’t know how much a pint of milk costs on national television, to see Milliband eating that bacon sarnie. For no matter how many photo opportunities they endure, no matter how many factories and building sites they visit, there is no hiding the fact that these days, many MPs and party politicians are of the same stock, regardless of their party – walking, sound-bite-spewing reminders of hereditary peerage and the financial and cultural hierarchies that keep the sparks of class division burning in this country.
As our society strives to eliminate the scurvy of division based on class, gender and race, the vast majority of MPs and backbenchers remain overwhelmingly male, middle-aged, privately-educated and white. Democracy itself is built upon representation, so what’s democratic about an unrepresentative political system? Maybe it’s the lack of diversity that puts young voters off.
The level of contempt for politicians is almost unrivalled in Britain today, exemplified by the troubling scenes of champagne street parties following the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death. There has been a real change in the general public’s attitude towards politicians – they no longer command respect. You can see it in the change in tone of British political comedies, from the cuddly, leather-chaired seventies fare Yes Minister to the spiky, expletive ridden The Thick Of It – a reactionary swing at a corrupt and dystrophic political class of lies and spin. Indeed, Dave Cameron has even complained of his roof ‘falling to bits’ due to a constant stream of angry protestors trampling around on it. At least he has some experience of tiling now.
People feel betrayed. And, in truth, the public (especially young people) have good reason to feel betrayed. The cosy Conservative/Lib Dem coalition brought with it an intrinsic betrayal on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg, who was forced to publicly apologise for backing out of his pledge to keep tuition fees down, although this is just one in a long line of bumbling blunders. In the face of New Labour’s crushing betrayal of the UK with the Iraq War, the Liberal Democrats seemed a natural home for many young and left-of-centre voters, perhaps even the final place to turn. The most tragic thing about Clegg’s segway into the Tory coalition is that, for a short time, the Liberal Democrats looked to be the first party to have gained a fresh and viable foothold in what is essentially a two-party system: Labour and Conservative. By subserviently merging with the least ideologically similar of the two, Clegg and the Lib Dems have all but lost their meaning and purpose, reduced to reluctant accomplices to the semi-privatisation of the public sector, the rise of zero hour contracts and the big benefits squeeze.
During the Romanian presidential election of November 2014, thousands of young expat voters descended on embassies and polling stations in the UK to protest the apparently strategic restrictions of the young diaspora’s right to vote. Similar scenes of youth protest can be found all over Europe and the rest of the world when it comes to voting; however, in the UK, the youth seem to have cultivated their own more regressive and reserved brand of protest: of stagnant and defiant non-participation.
However, it is important for young people to assess just how effective non-participation really is. This is a delicate and important time in British politics, in which alienation and disengagement has led to a growth in the power of potentially dangerous outsider parties such as UKIP…. spoiling a vote is better than nothing. It’s not to say that young British people don’t care. Thousands of young people turned out to protest against the Iraq War, rising tuition fees and public sector cuts, while 84.5% of Scottish voters took part in the independence referendum of 2014.
In this age where legitimate and conscious political commentary is shunned in favour of the lazy, quasi-revolutionary sensationalism of Russell Brand-type ranters, the simple fact is that party politics has left many British people out in the cold, not just ‘the yoof.’
By Ted Ralph