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Westminster Sunset Edited

Youth politics: the recipe for success

Paul Scully MP
January 27, 2019

Treating young people with respect and delivering a plausible, deliverable message that chimes with their values offers the start of a recipe that will keep young people involved in politics for generations to come, says Paul Scully MP.

Over the years much has been written about how to get young people interested in politics. Arctic Monkeys on the playlist, the Cool Britannia reception in Downing Street, or the Beatles getting their MBEs at the behest of Harold Wilson; we have seen decades of politicians trying to connect with the youth of the day. Clearly political parties need to get people's attention to ensure their message is received but it's a means to an end. To have any lasting response it is the message itself that has to resonate.

The fundamental approach need be no different to appeal to 14 to 20 year-olds than it is for any other age group. Speak to people about issues and subjects that they want to discuss, using a platform or medium that they use and you have a far better chance that you will get a fair hearing. I remember my then 13-year-old son coming back from school having listened to a local candidate address the boys about pensions; not a subject that is likely to hit the top 100 issues simmering away in many teenage minds.

Social media continues to develop. Blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter and now for mid-teenagers, Snapchat. Each time a new platform comes to the fore, it is punchier, more spontaneous and more transient with messages overtaken by the next thing to pop up. Thus catching attention in the first place requires ever more imagination and creativity. This has the significant downside of allowing clickbait stories and fake news the oxygen to spread which diverts from informed debate and helps to fuel populist agendas.

That does not mean that young people cannot digest more than a soundbite. Policies and debate on solutions can hit home if they meet a young audience's thirst for opportunities to build their futures. It needs to be based on something that they can see how it affects them in the near future like education, or perhaps something for which they will have to bear the consequence later down the line, such as climate change. Finally it needs to be plausible.

If younger people do not yet know the finer points of policy detail, they are certainly establishing their guiding values at this stage. Children are far more aware about value-based broad issues such as environmental concerns or human rights than ever before. Policies are the mechanism in order to deliver change according to a set of values or core beliefs. So if we have a clear, engaging message and well-explained policies, they will still be rejected if young people judge the politicians to be acting against the values that they have at their core.

The University tuition fees debate at the last General Election was a good example of powerful rhetoric which engaged young people. Had it been successful it would likely have proved impossible to deliver and so alienated another generation of young people, just as the Liberal Democrat U-turn whilst in coalition turned young people against them. In the short term, ideology often wins the PR battle over reality and pragmatism.

For some older teenagers and many people in their twenties, housing might start to come onto the radar as an issue. Being able to leave home and live an independent, prosperous life with the prospect of owning a home – the biggest asset that most people will have in their lifetime – is the aspiration of many young people following a traditional path to prosperity. However, especially in London, there is currently a plausibility gap. Young people do not feel that the rhetoric of politicians meets the reality.

Whilst the government has introduced several important policies most young people don't expect to be in a position to buy their first house in their thirties or for some time beyond. We need to demonstrate real progress while managing expectations that any such housebuilding programme takes time.

Governing is not easy. Governments, especially Conservative ones have to act responsibly, acting in the interests of the country and taking into account the whole gamut of human nature. Whereas opposition parties can be idealistic, painting broad pictures without being tested on specifics or having to prove deliverability. Making tough decisions for the long term, in the best interests of the country as a whole is difficult and the results often cannot be judged for some years down the line. But we can always better explain the reasoning for the decisions.

Engaging young people is not about gimmicks. Even changing the voting age only has superficial appeal. Treating young people with respect, engaging via the medium that best suits them, with a positive message that meets their aspirations, chimes with their values and seems plausible and deliverable provide the start of a recipe to keep young people involved in politics.


Paul Scully is the Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Technology and the Digital Economy.

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