Democratic will of the young

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Members of Scottish Students Against War (SSAW), launched late last year, know the strength of their convictions is not shared by the majority of their peers, but they're adamant fellow students are more politically conscious than adults believe.

"A report by the Electoral Commission found that a higher percentage of 16 to 18-year-olds would vote than in the 18 to 24 age group, yet everyone has us written off as apathetic and uninterested," says Patrick Orr, joint convener of SSAW Scotland. "That isn't true."

The research carried out in 2005 by the commission, an independent body set up to promote democracy, interviewed 500 16 to 20-year-olds to find out how they felt about political issues, rather than the vote. More than 80 per cent felt strongly. It then compared it to the attitudes of 500 21 to 25-years-olds, asking them how they felt when younger. Only 57 per cent said they felt strongly at the time.

"Young people have a strong interest in the issues that affect their lives and are keen to have a say on their concerns, but only 37 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 2005 general election and turnouts among young people in local elections can be as low as 11 per cent," says Beccy Earnshaw, participation manager at the Electoral Commission, which recently launched a free educational resource, The Democracy Cookbook, providing information for teachers about how politics works and ideas to encourage young people to take an interest.

"There needs to be more focus in citizenship education on helping young people make the connection between the issues that interest them at a local, national and international level and the political institutions and processes that deal with these issues." But a reluctance to vote may be due more to a reluctance to support politicians.

Research into the attitudes of 800 young people carried out three years ago by Henry Maitles, head of curricular studies at Strathclyde University's faculty of education, revealed cynicism towards politicians.

"Young people show interest in politics with a small p: single issues such as Fair Trade, the environment or the Third World," says Mr Maitles. "But I don't know if that will translate into an interest in what's going on in Holyrood or Westminster."

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