Education is the Key to solving Youth apathy | Toby Gould

A day after the 2017 general election, politicians, and others, tweeted a statistic that put the turnout of 18-25 year olds at 72%.  This would have meant more young people would have turned out than the average  (68.7%) and would have been a remarkable rise on the 44% of young people who voted in 2015.  Continuing the trend of hailing young people as having a significant impact in politics last year, Oxford Dictionary has named ‘youthquake’ (a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people) the 2017 word of the year.

Unfortunately, the real statistics don’t add up to young people creating a ‘youthquake’.  While it may not have been completely fabricated, a surge in young people taking an interest in politics has become a lazy explanation for the result of the 2017 election.  Young people have been used to explain Labour’s relative success at the general election.  It would make sense – a high turnout of young people voting predominantly for Corbyn’s Labour could have had a significant impact on the result.  Plus, it ties in with the image of Corbyn being popular amongst the youth – standing before a crown of Glastonbury goers all chanting ‘ooh Jeremy Corbyn’. 

The reality is, turnout of 18-25s year olds was between 40% and 50% in 2017 (according to the British Election Study) – though YouGov puts it slightly higher at 57%.  Labour was more popular among young people compared with 2015 (between 60 and 65% of 18 – 25 year olds voted for Labour).  It’s possible this had an effect; the BBC found that constituencies with more young people had a greater swing to Labour.  Good news for Labour, perhaps, but not so much for politics and youth engagement in general.  More of the engaged are turning to Labour, but there is no evidence that Corbyn’s Labour, or any other party, managed to attract mass support from those who are already disengaged.

A Parliament research briefing last year found, unsurprisingly, that there are big gaps in political engagement between young people and older generations.  They have low levels of knowledge on politics and are less likely to feel that getting involved in politics is beneficial.  Likely as a result of these attitudes, they are much less likely to be registered to vote, to turn out to vote and to associate with a political party.  A link has been made between a lack of political knowledge and low engagement.  This explanation appears time and time again, and so to get young people engaged we need to start at the beginning: with education and changing people’s perceptions.

The problem of youth apathy is institutional.  Throwing aside big changes to our system that might help solve the problem (electoral reform to a more proportional system, for example), which aren’t realistically going to happen any time soon, education is key.  At the moment, compulsory education about our political system is basically non-existent.  Current ‘Citizenship’ classes are mostly unhelpful, taught by teachers who may have no training in it whatsoever, and they don’t have to be continued past the age of 14.  After this, Politics and Sociology are the only GCSE’s which give students a basic understanding of politics, though not all schools offer them.  As a result, most students will leave school with near-to-no knowledge about British politics – and if they do understand it, that won’t have come from a classroom.  The only solution to this is compulsory education on basic politics, which gives students the necessary information they need to participate when they are 18. 

This is the most basic of starts to begin reversing a worrying trend of youth disengagement.  Only by giving young people the knowledge they need to engage will we ever see a ‘youthquake’ in British politics.

* This was originally published in the first edition of the Student Voices e-magazine.

Toby Gould is the editor of Student Voices and a politics student at the University of York.
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