Why the kids are all right

24th December 2010 at 00:00
How to get the young involved in the political process

Politicians cry crocodile tears about the "democratic deficit". They claim to be terribly disappointed, indeed upset, that so many young people do not involve themselves in the political process.

They look towards voting figures - voting among 18 to 24-year-olds is the lowest of any cohort - and headlines about hooligan activity, our young people being the worst behaved in Europe and lack of youth membership of political parties.

Yet there is also evidence that, although young people are alienated from formal politics, they are active and interested in single issue, environmental, political, developing world and animal welfare issues. The appeal of single issue campaigns seems to be a clear connection between the energies put in and the result: 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.

The decision by the Liberal Democrats at Westminster to ditch their policy of opposition to tuition fee increases effectively epitomises the "democratic deficit". One can only wonder what the 63 per cent of our 1,600 students who agreed with the statement that "politicians will tell you anything to get your vote" might make of it.

The Liberal Democrats pitched for first-time voters in seats with large student populations, on the basis that other parties abandoned policies but they would not. For young people, this is the ultimate betrayal - not just government policies that they abhor, but the betrayal of trust at the same time as tens of billions of public money (their fees as they see it) goes into the hands of the bankers and their bonuses.

Paradoxically, the very same journalists and commentators who have been decrying the lack of student involvement now lament the political action.

Actually, it was never true that the student movement had disappeared: students were heavily involved in the anti-poll tax movement and the anti- war movement. But it took the Lib-DemConservative coalition fully to politicise this generation.

The violence of the London demonstration has been a big issue in the media. I note that the only serious injury so far is being investigated as I write by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, as doctors and witnesses believe that a police baton was responsible for the brain injury to a 20-year-old student.

So a generation of young people feels betrayed by the Government and takes action on the streets. They should be applauded, indeed supported. They have shown the weakness of the Westminster government, as their protests have meant that its majority in the student funding debate was very small.

The movement has also encouraged the SNP Government in Edinburgh to go against some of its policy advice and come out against any tuition fee increase in Scotland. It is the shape of things to come.

Henry Maitles is professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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