Writing by Ali Gavin. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
At the time of writing this article, it seems that the news cycle is moving with more intensity than ever before. The UK’s political environment appears increasingly disconnected from the average citizen - especially for those who feel left behind, or even completely ignored. Firsthand, I can tell you that frustration amongst the 15-25 age bracket is, as always, rife. For many people in this age range, it can feel that the decisions that affect them are constantly being made by figures who share few or none of their concerns. This is what The Youth Vote UK’s work aims to directly tackle.
The Youth Vote UK is an organisation which seeks to increase voter turnout amongst young people across the UK in general, Scottish, Welsh and local elections. The organisation is neutral, not leaning towards any political side or party. As a group run by young people, its campaigns focus on engaging with people on an equal level, encouraging not only voter registration but also turnout, and even running for elections. I spoke with the organisation’s Deputy Advisor for Scotland, Kirsty Smith, to find out about sme of the group’s aims and strategies.
Kirsty tells me that one of the organisation’s primary approaches in terms of engagement is its Campus Ambassadors, of which there are over forty across the UK. These Campus Ambassadors are students at universities who work to “create a bridge between the organisation and young people.” The ambassadors are spread out across various sections of the organisation, such as the campaigns team, finances, events, and policy and news analysis. As COVID restrictions continue to ease, the campaigns team in Glasgow and Edinburgh have this week been carrying out in-person campaigning in the run up to the Scottish parliamentary elections on 6th May. The group’s diversity and inclusion team, Kirsty says, examines not only diversity within UK politics in general, but also internally within the organisation itself to ensure that those from minority backgrounds are adequately represented. As the organisation continues to grow, they hope to expand this method to schools, colleges and spaces outside of academia - anywhere which allows for the encouragement of increased political engagement amongst the youth of the UK.
Kirsty believes that one of the main reasons for low engagement among students is the nature of being at university:
“We move about, we have different addresses, you forget to register again, or you’re registered at your home address and don’t register by proxy or by postal. There are all these different factors that make it just a little bit harder for young people to actually turn out and vote.”
I asked Kirsty whether she believes that politics in the UK puts up barriers to youth engagement, whether explicitly or implicitly:
“I think it’s implied throughout politics that it’s not really a young person’s game. You can see when you look at any kind of question time - like First Minister’s Questions - that in the chambers, it’s not minorities that are represented, it’s not young people that are represented, and it’s only now that you’re seeing more females.
“But, for young people specifically, you’re obviously going to feel disengaged when the people who you’re seeing in politics are not people who have the same interests as you and are not people who are going through the same life experience as you, or care about the same things necessarily.”
At the same time, Kirsty is optimistic that youth engagement is increasing, referencing the number of young people who turned up at the voting booths for Scotland’s Independence Referendum in 2014. While the 18-24 voter demographic consistently displays the lowest voter turnout in the UK, the organisation believes that the more young people that are represented in parliament, the more young people will turn out to vote - and vice-versa. They stress the importance of having political figures who share the interests of young people and will not ignore their concerns.
Accessibility of political information is another issue Kirsty speaks of. With the majority of people not having the time to comb through hundreds of pages of wordy documents and manifestos, The Youth Vote UK’s policy and news analysis team makes an effort to take political issues and make them digestible and accessible via their social media pages. This is especially helpful for more complicated bills which involve several legal changes, such as the recently-proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
“I think one of the biggest myths is that young people aren’t interested in politics, and that just isn’t the case at all. I think it’s just that accessibility is a major problem, and there are implicit barriers put in the way to make things more difficult.”
The organisation works on getting information to young people directly: resources to register to vote, information on when and how to vote, information on how the different electoral systems work, and so on. Often, it is the technical processes of politics and voting that can come across as the most daunting and out of reach, so the Youth Vote UK aims to make the facts around these technicalities as simple and readily available as possible.
What is most important is that politics “becomes a young person’s playing field.” The younger this process starts at, the better. For many young people, political education in school is not even an option; and when it is offered, the extent of the teaching is very often limited. Kirsty believes that some kind of education surrounding political systems - such as how to vote, how the systems operate, and the roles carried out by various political figures - should be made compulsory in the schooling system across the UK: “it could start lower down, but it just doesn’t.”
There is, of course, often a generational and community-based aspect to political disengagement in the UK. For young people from working-class backgrounds, a general sense of hopelessness and lack of faith in politics can pervade as a result of how their community has traditionally been treated by political figures. Politics can frequently seem to cater only to the middle and upper classes. Certainly, the UK’s political environment has made it easy for the disconnect and disenfranchisement to be even more pronounced amongst working-class young people than for young people of wealthier backgrounds. This is why Kirsty feels it’s important for the organisation to expand its ambassador method beyond the bounds of universities: “University is not a catch-all experience. It’s not something that every young person does.” This will become easier to do, she says, with the easing of restrictions in the near future.
General hostility towards young people’s political engagement continues to be seen from media sources and from some political figures. Yet, young people are very often at the forefront of political protests and calls for change. The Youth Vote UK recognises this energy and drive for change and, by providing young people with the necessary tools and information, wants to give them the agency to have their opinions listened to and their voices counted.
You can find out more about the organisation on their website https://www.theyouthvoteuk.com/ and @theyouthvoteuk on Instagram.