A few weeks ahead of the general election, young people's politics have moved up the media agenda. Forty-three per cent of people under 25 did not vote in 1992. This time almost a third say that it is certain or likely that they will not vote and fewer 18 to 25-year-olds are registered to vote than in any other age group.
But unlike before the last election, this time around not all is apathy. Rock the Vote, the campaign seeking to persuade young people to use their votes, is claiming huge success in its push for new registrations. Up to 450,000 first-time voters have registered following a sustained campaign using advertising, postcards and assorted pop stars, comedians and sporting celebrities.
Why has young people's involvement in politics suddenly become such a big issue? There are three main reasons. One is that the youth vote could have an impact on electoral outcomes. Certainly in many marginals, turnouts among voters under 30 could decide the result. Indeed, one of the remaining uncertainties about the timing of the general election is that the Conservatives could benefit from holding an April poll when students will be on vacation, and less likely to topple marginal Tories in university constituencies.
The second reason is that Rock the Vote's tactics have been deliberately high-profile, using shocking images, sophisticated publicity techniques and big stars to promote their message. The third, underlying reason is that low turnout points to a worrying disconnection of the young from mainstream political and social institutions. Even the most cynical politician realises that it is not healthy if the next generation of voters views Parliament as such a sleazy, corrupt, and irrelevant place that they can't be bothered to walk to the polling station once every few years.
Young people's voting behaviour is the visible symptom of a wider and deeper disengagement from the political system as a whole. Trust in institutions such as Parliament and the judiciary has fallen sharply amongst all age groups: only 10 per cent of the public now say that they have confidence in Parliament for example, and only a third in the judiciary. But trust is even lower among the young, and lowest of all among those groups you might expect to have most interest in affecting politics, such as ethnic minorities and the unemployed.
One of the healthier effects of the recent spate of publicity about young people's disillusionment with politics is that it has elicited a response. By comparison with a few years ago, the political parties are bending over backwards to win the youth vote. Labour's principal commitment - to be paid for by the windfall tax on the utilities - is to put 250,000 young unemployed people into work, and the Liberal Democrats recently unveiled a wide range of policies aimed at attracting first-time voters.
But these efforts will take a long time to have much effect. Part of the problem is that the messages are often mixed. Too often political rhetoric carries an implicit authoritarianism and portrays the young - whether unemployed men or drug-using young women - as problems to be dealt with rather than as citizens.
A bigger problem, however, is the deeply held fatalism about Westminster politics. The view that voting doesn't change anything is strong among those who have never voted, reinforced by living through a period of one-party government. It reflects scepticism about the willingness or ability of any party to act in their interests.
The second factor is that political expression is diverging from traditional political systems and structures. Anyone claiming that young people are not interested in politics per se is mistaken, as the sight of a 16-year-old girl emerging from the tunnels at the Exeter roads protests graphically illustrated. Far more young people now belong to environmental organisations than to political parties. Issues such as racism, animal rights and the environment often provoke intensive political activity among the young. It is significant that Rock the Vote's latest poster campaign features compelling images representing single issues: blood sports, racism, homophobia.
The appeal of single-issue movements is that there is a clear connection between the energies put in and the results. By contrast energies invested in party politics often seem to disappear into a black hole, not least because the real decision-making is probably more centralised than ever, and more dominated by the world view of a middle-aged, wealthy, London-based media lite.
Moreover many young people actually take pride in not playing along with the mainstream. In a survey we carried out last year, we found that a third of the younger generation were proud to be outside the system. MORI found that only 31 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds feel they have a duty to vote, compared to 63 per cent of over-55s. It is not just that they don't like the available choices - their links to the wider political culture are fragile.
Often young people see that culture of parties and elections as superficial, devoid of meaning. By contrast, roads protesters see themselves as pioneers of new ways of living, rejecting much of the baggage of consumerist industrial society. Animal rights activists often embrace vegetarianism or veganism. Direct action fits many young people's aspirations and lifestyles far better than putting a cross on a ballot paper in a dusty town hall.
However, all single-issue movements soon run up against limits. Without compromise and negotiation, and without a political system to synthesise different issues into some coherence, the danger is of being left not with a kaleidoscope of creative energies but rather a cacophony of mutual incomprehen sion. The challenge for orthodox politics is to find a better way to connect with the campaigns of its edges (and ask why not a single national politician has visited the roads protesters). Eighteen to 24-year-olds are more likely than other groups to say that specific issues would cause them to change their vote, suggesting that they might respond to political initiative. Conversely, the challenge for the activist campaigns is to find a way to connect to the parties which have to find ways to balance very different interests and values.
The lubricant for such a dialogue should be a shared culture of citizenship. Unfortunately this is lacking. Schoolchildren's understanding of the political system is now less than it was at the beginning of the Nineties, and many of the programmes designed to prepare people to play a full part in the life of society are squeezed to the margins by the obsession with exam results.
There are important messages here for teachers. This year hundreds of schools are participating in mock elections, debating the issues, putting forward party candidates and voting shortly before the real polling day arrives. While this has some value, it is unlikely to prevent the disengagement and cynicism now common among potential first-time voters. Their situation is rather like that of children who actively oppose smoking before they get the chance to try it - simulation of choice is unlikely to make any lasting impression. More promising, however, are the growing number of initiatives which foster authentic engagement and participatio n by young people over time.
Organisations such as Changemakers, which supports secondary pupils to choose and then manage their own community projects, or Children's Express, a news agency for children which regularly sells stories to national broadsheet newspapers, are providing direct experience of social and political engagement which young people seem to find stimulating and important. The growing number of schools, secondary and primary, which give student councils a genuine voice in important decisions, are also making a vital investment in the political culture of the future because in the end, the experience of making change teaches far more than the chance to replicate what adults are already getting wrong.
Geoff Mulgan is director of Demos, the independent think tank. Tom Bentley is a researcher with Demos.
Student councils, TES2, page 3