The age of apathy

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Despite admirable efforts by some schools to inspire them (see opposite), our poll suggests today's 18-year-olds find politics a huge turn-off. Clare Dean opens a three-page general election special.

THEY are more likely to recognise Ali G - the award-winning comedy creation of Sacha Baron Cohen - than William Hague, the Conservative party leader, and they balk at the prospect of protest.

Today's teenagers are a tame lot; their political opinions are formed by the television and their parents rather than impassioned debates in the common room. It seems the age of student revolt is well and truly over.

An analysis by MORI for The TES of the political attitudes of first time voters shows that they are more apathetic than the general population - and getting more so.

In March 1997, 15 per cent of them - twice as many as the electorate as a whole - said they would not vote. Now around one in five say they won't turn out on June 7.

MORI also detects a swing in support from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, down from 62 to 53 per cent and up from 9 to 14 per cent respectively.

Its findings are borne out by the TES 200 poll of first time voters, which confirms one in five won't vote. Among those who will, Labour gets the vote of just over half. Three out of 10 will vote Tory while the Lib-Dems are backed by 7 per cent.

Politics and protest are a big turn-off. Only eight of the 200 students - at state and private schools and further education colleges in England and Wales - interviewed by The TES have been involved in a protest during the past 12 months.

These ranged from a privately-educated pupil from St Mary's girls school in Wantage, Oxfordshire, who joined the Countryside Alliance protest to a Solihull College student who went on a march to protest at the political situation in Cyprus.

Gareth Davies from Coleg Gwent Pontypool Campus is one of the eight who took to the streets but even he feels so disenchanted that he is not going to vote. "I don't think the system works. It doesn't matter who is in power.

"You have to take personal responsibility - when my sister's school was threatened with closure I protested and the protest is still going on. I think John Major's time represented the best for the country but it's all been downhill since then."

Show these sixth-formers and students a photograph of Ali G or Myleene Klass from the pop group Hear'Say and they know who they are in a second.

But try them on Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, mistaken by one student for the impressionist Rory Bremner, and the Chancellor Gordon Brown and they are struggling. Most can, however, recognise Tony Blair or William Hague.

The phrase "Two Jags" is about as near as many get to describing the deputy prime minister John Prescott.

Pity former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, whose picture did not even feature in the rogues' gallery shown to students by The TES. She was confused time and again for that darling of the Tory party, Ann Widdecombe. In fact, just 44 per cent of students correctly identified Ms Widdecombe, the shadow home secretary.

Michael Portillo enjoyed the same success rate. Gordon Brown fared slightly better on 46 per cent, John Prescott on 48 per cent and popstar Myleene 58 per cent.

The biggest hitters were William Hague on 88 per cent, Tony Blair on 94 per cent and Ali G on 95 per cent.

Amritpal Singh Khosa, studying A-levels in German, history and art at Greenford high in the London borough of Ealing was not impressed by any of the political parties. He said: "None is worthy of my vote."

Jatinder Sanghera, a fellow Greenford pupil, meanwhile insisted that she would vote Labour to keep out William Hague. "I really don't want him getting in because I think a lot of what he says is racist and it affects me directly as my family are from India."

Dave Roberts, a sixth-former at Wickersley comprehensive, Rotherham, will be voting too. He said: "First-time voters are important because the way they vote now will probably be the way they will vote for most of the rest of their lives."

Leader, 20; FE Focus, 33


Green: Rebecca Jones, a student at Coleg Gwent Pontypool Campus, studying chemistry, biology and maths A-levels. She says: "I think another party should be given a chance. My dad votes Labour - he says he likes the Greens but voting for them is a waste of time. He's right perhaps, but it's my choice. I won't criticise Tony Blair over foot-and-mouth even though it's affecting us where we live. He couldn't have done more than he did - it came so suddenly."

Undecided: Matthew Jones is studying A-levels in maths, chemistry and history at Coleg Gwent Pontypool Campus and wants to read politics and philosophy at university. He hopes to go into politics and earn a living from his main hobby, writing. He says: "I will decide on reform of the electoral system and of the House of Lords and, as I am going to university, on attitudes to grants and tuition fees. Major was a good leader. He seemed professional, above the sleaze in his party. I would not have voted Tory though. Charles Kennedy has not had enough time to settle in as leader of the Lib Dems. Ashdown was a good leader. With Blair there's too much spin. John Smith was good - you don't realise how good they were until they've gone."

Labour: Laura McCullough is taking a BTEC in performing arts at Park Lane College, Leeds, and wants to work as an actress after a drama degree. She says: "I've never given the elections much thought up until now. I will vote but don't think there's much of a choice for students. We all end up in debt which worries me. I don't want to start my working life in debt, especially in the field I've chosen where there is so much uncertainty. I'll probably vote Labour, because my mother does and it's the party I've grown up with."

Lib-Dem: Christopher Hallebro from Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, is studying English, history, psychiatry and classics at King Edward VII high in King's Lynn. He has a conditional offer from Oxford to read English literature and history and wants a career in journalism or politics. He says: "There is apathy, not about voting, but about the parties and the way they squabble. With foot-and-mouth it's just been point-scoring all the time. Not doing things for the good of the country, but for themselves. Our age-group is quite angry about that. I'm voting Lib-Dem because I don't want Blair or Hague to be prime minister. I'm generally fairly right-wing, but would not vote for William Hague because he just jumps on any bandwagon that's going."

Not voting: Navdeep Kalsi, 18, from Southall, is studying English, sociology and history A-levels at Greenford high in Ealing and wants to go to the University of Sussex to study English and philosophy. She is considering teaching and journalism as a career. "Labour does not seem very Labour - the Lib Dems seem more left-wing. Tony Blair is causing trouble in the world like the madness of bombing Baghdad. I am also shocked at the way the government hides its mistakes and does not deal with the real issues like the north-south divide for example. Things are OK for people driving Mercedes but what about the people who cannot afford these luxuries?" Not voting: Lizzie Ward of Wickersley comprehensive, Rotherham, where she is studying English, biology, history and general studies. She hopes to do a law degree and train as a barrister. She says: "I am not bothered about voting. I don't feel politics has anything to do with me at all. I leave it all to my dad, he's interested in politics."

Not voting: Toni Charles, 19, (also pictured on front page) is in her first year of a two-year HND in sports and exercise science at Solihull College. A former member of the Great Britain ice-skating team, she is hoping to become a full-time coach. She says: "I don't feel that I am old or experienced enough to know what I am doing. I expect I'll vote at the next election. I'll be older and know more about the parties' policies and aims and I won't feel afraid that I'll put my foot in it." She says 21 would be a more sensible voting age. "A lot of students simply aren't mature enough to know what to do yet."

Conservative: Rebecca Satchell, 19, is doing a Btec in science at Wiltshire College, Trowbridge, and has a place at Portsmouth University to read biomedical science. She wants to be a pathologist. She says: "I am a farmer's daughter. Life has been hard. I had to leave my course for two weeks when foot-and-mouth started. But I don't think things would necessarily have been different under the Conservatives. I have been involved in a farmers' protest over BSE and the campaign for British meat in supermarkets. My parents never went to university and are keen for me to go. But it's hard to concentrate on a degree when you're worrying about money - I would like to see grants back.

"Tony Blair waffles on about nothing. He speaks to young people as if they were children - it makes me feel sick."

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