In the second article of our new series of cross-party reflections on young people and politics, Nic Dakin MP argues that young people are more politically engaged than some people think.
To a 14-year-old, a 20-year-old is ancient! So it’s easy for politicians in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who are making the major decisions which will impact their life, to be seen as completely detached by this age group. For young people, politicians can be seen as actors who are hard to connect, influence and engage with.
And maybe we are. But if anything can be learned from the 2017 General Election and the role of younger voters, it is that they are more politically engaged than some people thought. And by talking about major policy issues which animate them they are an influential political force helping to shape their own and the nation’s future. And through Social Media, there is a new, relevant platform for engagement with a group whom politicians have found it so hard to connect with.
We need to be more accessible than ever. That means saying yes to invitations from schools, colleges, universities and youth groups. It means answering the random emails that come in from younger constituents in a way that engages with the questions asked. That’s what I try to do. It means welcoming those 14-20-year-olds who want to spend time in an MP’s office in Westminster or in the constituency and making it happen for them, on their terms as far as possible.
Lawrence first knocked on my door when he was 15 wanting to get some work experience. It then took me ages to get rid of him. He stuck around soaking things up. Placement followed placement until after he graduated from university when he then worked for 18 months as my Parliamentary Assistant before moving on to a proper job. Not everyone has to do a Lawrence and it would be strange if they wanted to. But everyone can get a taste and be given the opportunity to engage with politicians in a straightforward way.
Facebook and Twitter are important tools for politicians to tell their story and to respond to those who respond to them. Facebook Live works quite well through its immediacy in getting the unexpected to respond. Younger constituents are as likely to contact me through a direct tweet than through an email or a phone call. But these virtual platforms are not where most young people are. They are more likely to be on Instagram and Snapchat. And they will rapidly move on to new platforms because young people are instinctively innovative. And they want to find spaces to play in, chat in, to be in where older people are not.
So there is a dilemma. Do the dinosaur politicians try to talk to younger citizens through the most hip platforms? Conservative MPs went headlong into Instagram and it didn’t quite work. Because whoever you are talking to – old or young – it doesn’t work unless it’s authentic.
To be authentic, we need to listen and use our position as Members of Parliament to drive this change. The next generation has very little reason to believe that decision-making in Westminster will benefit them. They are struggling to enter a complex, changing workforce. They are paying more for university, they are struggling to buy a house, they are at the sharp end of cuts to education and alert to the uncertainties of Brexit and the impact it may have on their future. These concerns and challenges need to be championed by 14-20 year olds and politicians need to respond to them in a way where it is easy for young people to interact with them.
So, there is the where and the how of listening and talking to 14-20-year olds and then there is the what. What are the policies that motivate this age group? Well I’ve spent a lifetime working with 16-18-year-olds with my last proper job being Principal of a Sixth Form College. All my experience says this age group cares about the same things as older age groups: jobs, health, the environment, education. Their perspective is often different. And they are often energetic and enthusiastic, less world-weary and cynical.
The trick is for political parties to give an avenue for this passion and excitement to help shape the future of our parties and our countries. Political parties can help bridge the generational gap by consciously involving 14-20-year-olds in our policy creation and other conversations. In the same way that consciously involving women, BAME and those living with disabilities in the past has transformed the political landscape, involving younger citizens will do the same for the future.