Guilty of adult apathy

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Politicians, teachers and celebrities should try harder to engage the young in politics, says Tom Wylie

THOSE who consider that general elections are as much about style as substance will have been struck by the recruitment of Geri Halliwell to help turn out the youth vote for Labour.

It's easy to be cynical, but we should applaud the involvement of any celebrity in the democratic process. Though much of Geri's fanbase is probably too young to vote, all democrats still have a responsibility to encourage the sustained commitment of the young. The turnout of the young is likely to be some 20 percentage points lower than that of older adults. A third of young people declare themselves uninterested in formal politics and a similar proportion does not identify with any political party, compared to one in seven adults.

Youthful disenchantment is not new. In the mid 1970s Shirley Williams, then Secretary of State for Education, troubled by the rise of the National Front, funded a programme of political education through the British Youth Council, chaired by a young man called Peter Mandelson. His career flourished though successive governments neglected the British Youth Council. Participation in elections is linked to age, gender, class and education levels.

But it is not simply a matter of apathy. Some young people consider themselves insufficiently informed to participate: failure to vote can thus represent a sense of responsibility, not its absence. Even so, voters aged 18-24 were the group which swung most heavily to Labour in 1997.

In 1995 Geoff Mulgan, one of the Prime Minister's principal advisers, wrote "for many young people in Britain today, politics has become something of a dirty word". Government has set in train a set of initiatives to begin to address this concern. These include the insertion of citizenship into the national curriculum for schools and parallel action in post-16 education and in the wider youth-oriented world.

But young people do not just lack information; too many do not trust politicians to address the issues that matter to them, and can adopt a tone which appears to suggest that they ar campaigning against young people. Some teachers, never mind students, do not experience schools as democratic institutions. What's learnt from the hidden curriculum can work against what is being taught explicitly. School councils can be useful tools for consultation, but they usually lack real power and influence. Shouldn't they be allocated proper resources?

Isn't it time to offer young people a direct voice in the governance of schools and colleges? The voting age should be lowered to 16: this would sharpen up the attention of politicians, local and national, to youth issues.

At present those seeking election can often ignore the services which matter most to the young. A good place to start would be by rebuilding neglected youth services which can often reach the more disillusioned and disadvantaged young in ways which other institutions find difficult. One of the youth service's primary purposes is promoting the voice of young people - it should be given the capacity to do it better.

The formation of citizens is not just a task for schools. Many young people are already active in the wider community. The Philip Lawrence Awards are testimony to young people's involvement in action for their local communities. Others are concerned about, and active on, global and environmental concerns. They do not label this as 'politics', but such social action helps to counteract their deep sense of powerlessness. The National Youth Agency, with its partners including the Citizenship Foundation, is involved in building democratic skills in the young. Our "Getting Involved and Influential" curriculum materials focus on the skills of decision-making. With the Local Government Association we will, this July, publish a set of standards for involving young people across the whole range of public services which affect their lives.

Effective action requires attention to structures and skills. We also need to reframe the debate. The real issue is not young people's apathy, but what politicians, educators - and, yes, even pop celebrities - are doing to engage the young.

Tom Wylie is chief executive of the National Youth Agency

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