A survey of pupils reveals a worrying level of cynicism about politics and politicians, says Bali Rai
Last year, as I made my way to yet another school, I started wondering what teenagers really thought about politics in the UK. 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 that I would attempt to find the answers to some of these questions by engaging in debates with teenagers around the country. At the same time, Walker Books asked me if I would like to do "a Michael Moore" for British teenagers. Having always had a great interest in politics, and overjoyed that I would finally get to use my politics degree for something, I said yes.
But how to start? I sat down with my agent and we began to brainstorm, writing down questions that we would like the answers to. Eventually we came up with a questionnaire, which we began to send out to schools all over the UK.
Initially, both of us thought that the response would be muted. After all, the conventional wisdom of the day said that all teenagers were interested in was the internet and sending 50,000 text messages each day.
Politics was boring and staid; grey debates conducted by grey politicians.
Then the questionnaires began to flood back in with some very surprising results and I began to collate the information I was getting. Now that the election is past, I thought I might share my findings with you.
The first question I looked at was whether teenagers were interested in voting. I took 500 surveys and began to plod through them, putting definite "yes" replies in one pile, and "noes, maybes and not sures" on another.
More than eight out of 10 respondents said that they would like to vote, that they saw it as a duty. Surely the future of politics in the UK is safe if so many of our youngsters want to cast a vote? Well, don't get the champagne out just yet, Mr Blair.
The second question I looked at was whether teenagers trusted politicians.
Again I put yes and no replies on separate piles, but this time I also had a pile for those who had replied "sometimes or maybe". More than half answered no - they didn't trust politicians at all. A further four out of 10 replied sometimes. Only one in 20 gave an unequivocal yes.
The next question was "do you believe what you read in the newspapers?"
Almost half replied "no", while another 44 per cent said 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 I looked at whether teenagers were interested in politics. Now when you consider that four-fifths said they would like to vote, you would think that a similar number would have answered yes to the final question?
Well, you would be wrong. Only 38 per cent said that they found politics in the UK interesting, compared to 62 per cent who replied with an outright no. So the message is that 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 conflict 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 which they felt needed to be addressed. No mention of the economy or the health service. And even more surprisingly, not a single mention of Michael Howard's "vote-winner" in the Westminster election - asylum and immigration.
The whole point of the book that I'm going to write is to present politics as it should be rather than as it is. My findings clearly show that young people see voting as important but that they distrust those whom they are supposed to be electing. In that regard, I don't suppose that they are too different to many adults.
The really worrying thing for me, however, is that distrust and cynicism has spread to our youth. At a time when they should be idealistic and getting involved, they aren't. You can blame politicians and a biased media for that. And no amount of citizenship classes is going to change things.
Bali Rai's latest novel, The Whisper, was published by Corgi on May 5.