It's a myth that young people aren't interested in the election, says Josephine Gardiner. Two contradictory stereotypes are dominating received wisdom about the role of this year's first-time voters. First, we have the wilfully disenfranchised teenager, taking a perverse pride in asserting that politicians are all equally rotten and that voting is a complete waste of time. Then there is the eco-warrior or single-issue campaigner, personified by Swampy. Curiously, both attract an equal amount of derision.
Young people are demonised when they decline to engage with the democratic process, but as soon as they take their first tentative steps into the harsh world of politics, they are either patronised or ridiculed. All three parties are prioritising education, but this is pitched mainly at the parental vote. The new voters, who will probably still be receiving education in some form, come a long way down the list, even though their opinion could be decisive in marginal seats.
London's Evening Standard, published a tirade by Anne Applebaum against the frivolity of youth. It was illustrated by a cartoon showing a moronic-looking boy with his T-shirt hanging out of his jeans. Ms Applebaum berates the youth of today for failing to become excited by the balance of payments deficit, European currency convergence criteria or pensions: "I think how much easier it is to grow teary-eyed about the fate of baby cows". Young people are "too intellectually lazy" to appreciate the importance of democracy, she says. "Looking back over the past century, it is difficult to find many political causes which both interested young people and had much lasting value." So much for those silly young things who died fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
It seems unfair to accuse young people of apathy about elections when they have lived an entire lifetime under one political party, and equally odd to deride the campaigns that do enthuse them.
There are signs that these stereotypes are not even based on fact. An ICM poll of 821 18- to 23-year-olds published at the weekend found that 59 per cent were definitely or very likely to vote and 20 per would "possibly" vote - a big improvement on 1992 when 43 per cent of under-25s did not vote.
The notion that most young people are apathetic was exploded this week in a paper given to the British Psychological Society conference in Edinburgh. Dr Debi Roker and colleagues interviewed 1,165 14- to 16-year-olds in three schools. Young people, says Dr Roker, are always discussed by the media and politicians in terms of problems - unemployment, disaffection or drugs - they are seen as an issue. "This image is, we believe, both inaccurate and simplistic I There is a clear contradiction between evidence, rhetoric and image in relation to young people and community involvement in Britain. "
Statistics bear this out, says Dr Roker. Membership of Amnesty International's youth section grew from 1,300 in 1988 to 15,000 in 1995. Greenpeace's youth wing rose from 80,000 in 1987 to 420,000 in 1995.
Dr Roker's researchers found that the majority of pupils had been involved in some form of political or community action in the previous year, from campaigning against the war in Bosnia to helping younger children with reading. They also discovered many "hidden" forms of activity that pupils had not mentioned because they did not think they would "count". This was particularly true of boys, such as the 14-year-old boy who had joined Amnesty International but who hadn't told his friends because he thought they would laugh at him, or the 16-year-old who had set up a lunchtime remedial reading group but thought it would not interest the researchers. Boys were also reluctant to mention activities that involved some self-interest; some felt that any voluntary or campaigning activity was embarrassing and uncool, something to be kept from families and peers.
The researchers point out that compared with the US and some European countries, Britain lacks a tradition of voluntary and community service for young people to cut their political teeth and develop a sense of social responsibility.
If the youth turn-out at this election does prove to be as disastrous as the last, there will be renewed pressure to make political literacy a compulsory part of the curriculum, now that history is voluntary after 14 and "citizenship education" still more of a talking point than a reality in schools. It is easy to be unnerved by references to balance of payments deficits at 18, and impossible to discuss electoral reform when the present system has never been explained.