As Big Brother wanes, can real voting revive?

15th August 2003 at 01:00
More young people vote in Big Brother than the local elections, runs the oft-quoted cry. Perhaps not for much longer. Even Big Brother saw a drop in votes cast of almost 50 per cent this year compared to last year.

Big Brother's decline will be some small comfort to politicians who had feared that it meant total exposure was the only way to excite young voters. Nevertheless it still leaves us with a genuine problem: at the last general election only 39 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds voted.

Admittedly, younger people have always been less likely to vote. Other countries face a similar phenomenon. And the decline in turnout among the under-25s reflects declining turnout across all age groups.

Young people have most to lose and gain from government policies - as they will be around longer to face the consequences. Yet as long as so few of them vote, their voices are crowded out by older electors. Their antipathy towards politics is bad for democracy.

Evidence suggests they are not apathetic. The Government's YvoteYnot project found many young people involved in community or charity work.

A lack of trust in politicans is certainly an issue, as a recent debate in these pages highlighted ("Are the young too cynical?" TES, August 1). But the picture is complex: recent research by MORI suggests that teenagers were slightly more likely than older voters to trust ministers.

The greatest challenge of course is for political parties to develop policies and means of communication that appeal to the young.

Interestingly, the MORI research found young people had broadly the same issues of concern as older voters - crime, health, warconflict - though they placed greater priority on drugs, the environment and animal welfare.

Policies need to respond to the priorities and values of young people, and they need more say in policy development.

Local councils across the country are exploring new ways of doing exactly that. Children's minister Margaret Hodge recently launched a pound;500,000 consultation fund to support events where children and teenagers can develop national and local policies. We also need to take seriously the Electoral Commission's consultation on lowering the voting age to 16.

Traditional ways of addressing young people won't work - they are increasingly sophisticated at filtering advertising messages. Instead we should look at ways to encourage them to ask questions, express views and interact.

For example, at a recent Smith Institute seminar in Downing Street, one participant raised the innovative website for teens set up by backbench MP Tom Watson. The site registers top in Google searches for Labour MPs, way above sites set up by other MPs, the House of Commons or Downing Street.

We should recognise too how often teenagers feel they lack the information to vote. One 20-year-old told me recently: "It would be a bit hypocritical of me to vote - I really don't know anything about it." No one should underestimate the potential and significance of citizenship education in schools.

But finally perhaps we can learn lessons from Big Brother after all. What could be easier than lying on the sofa on a Friday evening with the blipper in your hand, voting out the housemate who irritated you most in the the previous half hour? Traipsing to the local school on a rainy Thursday is a hassle by comparison. New methods of voting piloted by councils across the country that make it easier to vote still show lower turnout among the young. But there are signs of progress.

In 2000, turnout among 18-year-old first-time voters in Sunderland local elections was 19 per cent. They introduced postal ballots, and sent out letters to them just before the ballot arrived. In 2003 turn-out rose to 39 per cent. This shows it is possible to reverse falling turnout.

Young people are not all hopelessly alienated from the political process, but all of us in education and public life must encourage them to get involved so they can have a stronger voice in political debate.

Yvette Cooper is MP for Pontrefract and Castleford and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister involved in policies including neighbourhood regeneration and social exclusion

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