I firmly believe in my right to moan and complain. I don’t stand for poor service, I write emails to CEOs on a semi regular basis. There is no excuse for people not doing the job they are paid for. I’m particularly antsy about people who fail to even vaguely meet the standards required of those in public service. I get antsy for two reasons: largely I pay their salaries through my taxes but also in many cases I’ve helped to elect them into the positions they so poorly hold.
I have a firm belief however that as soon as I fail to exercise my democratic right to vote, I fail to have a right to complain about those who theoretically represent me. As soon as I step away from my responsibility to play my role in the democratic process, I no longer have the right to moan about Michael Gove, the NHS, Nigel Farage or potholes on my street. A democratic system only truly works when all those enfranchised to vote take advantage of their right. We are only truly represented if we step up and vote.
It is therefore with great sadness that I see once again a seeming lack of engagement with the public in the election ward I live in in Stratford upon Avon. Up until yesterday I was voting Liberal Democrats, for the simply reason that they were the only party to have tried to engage with me although only about the local elections. Yesterday however we received a Labour flyer so may the games begin. If I never turned on the TV or never listened to the radio, I would be oblivious to the fact that European elections will also be held on May 22nd.
This brings me therefore to the gist of this piece. If as an intelligent politically interested adult (with a back history of having voted in every election I had a right to vote in) I am barely aware of the upcoming local and European elections, how must first time or young voters feel? Are they even aware that they have a democratic duty on May 22nd? Fail to get young people engaged in the democratic process early and you fail to engage them, most probably for life.
As a teacher I feel never forcing my opinions on students is one of the most important things I can do. I firmly believe that my job is to open students minds to differing beliefs, situations, cultures and then allow them to develop their own opinions; opinions which more likely than not will morph and develop late into their twenties and thirties. One topic however I will not allow any leeway on – my students once they hit 18 should vote. There is no excuse not to.
I understand why many young people struggle to engage in the democratic process. They feel that politics isn’t relevant to them. They see politicians ‘getting down with the kids’ and feel even more that politicians just don’t get them. Of course young people should be interested in interest rates, pensions, immigration, foreign policy and the like but in all honesty as an 18/19 year old were you? Yes, everything that happens in Westminster or Strasbourg will ultimately impact on them but right now how many truly understand this.
Let’s be honest here for many in their late teens or early twenties they exist in their own bubble, concerned largely with what effects them and those in their immediate vicinity. This is most definitely not a criticism. It is in these years that you develop a sense of who you are as an adult, you learn what you believe in, what your morals truly are. You make decisions that effect the direction of your life.
Disenfranchisement happens when politicians or the public don’t recognise the significance of these years for young people. Failure of politicians to engage young people in the topics that most concern them: employment, training, university fees, housing etc can only lead to young people choosing not to vote: not exercising their democratic right / responsibility.
Having taught 9 year olds to 18 year olds, I have no doubt about the ability of young people to intellectually engage in the big political picture. Give them the right environment and even the youngest child I have taught is capable of understanding complex ideas and expressing their opinions. If you can just grasp their attention, make politics relevant to them, then not only will they engage with politicians on the topics that most concern them but also to those areas that as of yet, have no direct impact on their lives.
So where does responsibility for increasing political awareness lie? Once again I suspect the experts and the media would clamour to declare lack of political awareness to be the fault of teachers. Why don’t we teach students expressly about politics? I think most teachers would agree that we are probably in the best position to impact on the lives of students on mass. Teachers should therefore add politically engaging students to the long list of non-curricular areas we have failed to take responsibility for: politics, child abuse, sexualisation of young teens, forced marriage, healthy eating, wide musical and artistic knowledge among very very many.
As a teacher I want to take responsibility for these areas. I really do. The reality is that teachers now operate in a world of increasingly wide responsibilities for non-curricular areas but with increasing pressures on students hitting the right levels in tight curricular areas. The curriculum as it stands has no real room to encompass everything we should be teaching.
The reality is that while teachers of course have a responsibility to encourage political awareness, the real responsibility lies with parents and politicians. I have little doubt that the children of politically aware and engaged parents will as a whole grow into politically aware and engaged adults themselves. As a child I always went to polling stations with my parents and it was an assumption I would vote when I turned 18. The challenge therefore is to engage those who come from families with little or no political engagement.
My fear lies in the frightening reality that parties such as, but in particular, UKIP seem to have found the method needed to engage the political disenfranchised. Their simple messages of them and us seem to resonate only too well with those who worry about their jobs, housing and their cultural identity. Whether there is any true validity in UKIP statements loses importance among those who feel no one gets them, supports them or is on their side.
Faced with the threat of the discriminatory policies of groups such as UKIP, it is all the more important for society to encourage everyone including young people to vote. A failure to do this simply means every vote not exercised, is effectively one vote less for UKIP to have to match and beat.
As much as politically the choice between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives is in reality these days a case of ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’, choosing one of the three main parties at least will help to ensure that radical extremists are one step further away from power in Europe or locally.
I often tell a story to my students when faced with, “What difference can I really make? I’m only one vote.” I tell them a story about politics in Poland, a country I lived in for almost five years. In simply terms, one parliamentary election there was a record low amongst young voters. Less than 10% of young people voted.
The Mohair Army as they were known voted on mass. The Mohair Army are old ladies with mohair hats who attend church daily and believe every word the priests says. With many priests and Radio Marjya (a Catholic radio station) arguing the case for Andrzej Lepper’s Samoobrona (Self-defence) and Roman Giertych’s LPR (League of Polish Families), they came from obscurity to leading roles in a coalition government. Both parties were radical right wing organisations with links to Neo-Nazi youth movements. Indeed Roman Giertych himself once led All-Polish Youth – a full on Neo-Nazi youth movement that had my gay friend hurrying home when he saw them get off a coach near his house.
Young people didn’t support Samoobrona or LPR on the whole but their failure to state this through the ballot box ensured their rise in power. The realisation that their new Minister for Education, Roman Giertych had formally led a neo-Nazi organisation brought young people onto the streets in protest. The sudden move towards the de-liberalising of society shocked young people.
The coalition did not last. The three parties involved struggled to find common ground and work together. The government fell and a new election was called. This time around 70% of young people voted. Some polling stations in Warsaw saw 110% of votes cast. Polling stations ran out of ballot papers but young people refused not to vote and went to other polling stations until arrangements could be made for them to vote. Unsurprisingly, Samoobrona and LPR failed to receive enough votes, lost their deposits and went bankrupt. A more main stream and effective government was created.
This is my lesson to young people who say, “What difference can I really make? I’m only one vote.” You cannot democratically bring change for the positive unless each individual chooses to vote. You choose not to vote and you can easily bring change for the worse. This was a bitter lesson young people in Poland had to learn. Your vote makes a difference. At the very least it gives you the right to complain!
So I challenge all political parties in the last two weeks before the local and general elections to go out there and speak to young people, show them you care. I challenge parents to encourage those young people who have registered to vote to go to the polling stations on May 22nd. For those not registered, I challenge parents to get their children registered. I challenge the media to not dumb down the capabilities of young people, help show them they have the power to bring about change.
More importantly I challenge young people to exercise their democratic right, don’t be afraid of the ballot box, don’t think politics isn’t for you. It is, it is for everyone. More realistically it is for you, for you, as the youngest group, will be the one most affected in the future.