Now X marks the rot

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Teenagers may be cynical about politicians - but not necessarily about politics, writes Bali Rai.

Last year, as I made my way to yet another school, I wondered what teenagers in the UK really thought about politics. Did they care? Were they involved? Was the proposed lowering of the voting age to 16 a step in the right direction or a fanciful notion that would come back - if it ever happened - to bite politicians on the bum?

I decided I would try to find some answers by engaging in debates with teenagers around the country. At the same time, the publisher Walker Books asked me if I would like to do "a Michael Moore" for British teenagers.

I was overjoyed that I would finally get to use my politics degree for something, so I agreed.

But how to start? I sat down with my agent, Penny, and we brainstormed, writing all the questions we wanted answers to. Eventually, we came up with a questionnaire, which we sent to schools all over the UK.

We expected a muted response; after all, the wisdom of the day said all teenagers were interested in was the internet and sending 50,000 text messages each day. Politics was boring - grey debates conducted by grey politicians.

Then the questionnaires flooded in with some surprising results, and I began to collate the information. Now that an election is just days away, I thought I might share my findings.

My first question was whether teenagers were interested in voting. I took 500 surveys and plodded through them, putting definite "yes" replies in one pile, "nos", "maybes" and "not sures" in another. More than eight out of 10 said they would like to vote and saw it as a duty. Surely the future of politics in the UK is safe if so many youngsters want to vote?

But don't get the champagne out just yet, Mr Blair. The second question was whether teenagers trusted politicians. This time, I had a separate pile for "sometimes" and "maybe". More than half said "no", they did not trust politicians at all. Four in 10 said they did "sometimes". Only one in 20 gave an unequivocal "yes".

The next question was, "Do you believe what you read in the newspapers?"

Almost half said they did not, while another 44 per cent said they did "sometimes". Of these "sometimes" trusting teenagers, four out of five made a clear distinction between the broadsheets, which on the whole were biased but trustworthy, and the tabloids, which - if I'm honest - took a deserved beating in my survey.

Finally, were teenagers interested in politics? When you consider that four-fifths said they would like to vote, you might think a similar number would have answered "yes".

But you'd be wrong. Only 38 per cent said they found politics in the UK interesting, compared with 62 per cent who replied with an outright "no".

So they'd like to vote, but they would do it with very little interest in politics, and with next to no trust in the people they would be electing.

And you can hardly blame them. Politicians have turned trust into a major issue, and time and again the respondents in my survey named the Iraq war as the reason they distrusted their elected representatives.

They also named tuition fees, racism, the so-called "war on terror" and the environment as the big issues they felt needed to be addressed.

No mention for the economy or the NHS. And even more surprisingly, not a single mention of Michael Howard's "vote winner", asylum and immigration.

The whole point of the book that I am currently writing is to present politics as it should be, rather than as it is.

My findings, like those of Professor David Kerr reported in The TES last week, clearly show that young people see voting as important, but distrust those they are supposed to be electing.

I don't suppose they are so different from many adults. But the really worrying thing for me is that distrust and cynicism have spread to our youth. At a time when they should be idealistic and getting involved, they aren't.

You can blame politicians and the bias of the media for that. And no amount of citizenship teaching is going to change things.

Bali Rai's latest novel, The Whisper (Corgi), will be published on May 5

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