Political (Dis)Engagement?

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It simply isn’t true to say that students are disengaged in politics. There are active political societies across campus supporting the full spectrum of political ideology. 64% of 18-24 year olds voted in the EU referendum, contrary to the largely reported number of between 30 and 40%.

And yet, when it comes to going out and voting, we have a poor reputation. Channel 4 journalist, Michael Crick Tweeted about the incredibly low turnout for our University Ward Councillor election in early December 2016: where Labour won with just 2.5% of the electorate voting for them. Even the winner of the by-election, Nathan Burns, has been vocal on Facebook about the incredibly low turnout – which lead to his victory by just 19 votes. That means one County Townhouse plus one Lonsdale flat worth of people could have changed the results.

The LUSU Annual General Meeting failed to meet quorum last year, meaning not enough students attended the meeting for anything to pass. In the Michaelmas elections for JCR execs, NUS delegates and liberation officers there was a fairly abysmal 17% voter turnout. It’s not for a lack of trying from LUSU – who promoted the elections and pushed for students to vote.

So, why are we all so disengaged with it all? Voter turnout among the 18-24 voters has fallen by 20% in the last three generations. What’s causing it?

In 2010, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, promised to vote against any rising fees, and attracted a spike in student engagement. According to OpinionPanel polling, 48% of students voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Indeed, in 2010 the NUS announced that all 531 Liberal Democrat candidates had signed a pledge against rising fees. The Union encouraged their members to vote for them: and 57 of them were elected. Five years later, almost to the day, the NUS published an article naming the 36 elected MPs who broke the pledge and voted to triple tuition fees.

In April 2015, the Independent reported that half of undergraduates would never vote for the Liberal Democrats as a result of this U-Turn. And it’s no wonder: young people were deceived and alienated by the political process. For students and young people, the 2010 vote for Liberal Democrats was their first vote: for many of today’s students the 2010 election was the first they took an interest in: and the biggest promise made to students turned out to be a lie.

But the 2010 general election and the ultimate broken promise to students is just an example of a political culture that seems to ignore students. Take the recent protest in London, organised by the NUS. Of the broad topics being protested, students chanted against a further increase in fees. Less than a month later, and fees are up for students. When we feel ignored by politics, we become disengaged and vote less. When we vote less, politicians don’t need to appeal to us and we become an insignificant demographic – and so continues the vicious cycle of being ignored, so ignoring politics, so being further ignored.

Being ignored by the political system is frustrating and would, obviously, lead to apathy from students and young people.

But, if you ask me, that’s not why we’re the most unlikely demographic to go to a ballot box.

We, the so-called “millennials” are the first generation to be raised with the audience of social media and the instant gratification of the Internet. When we have an opinion, we can spout it to hundreds of people without leaving the house. When we want something, be it a taxi or a takeaway, we can get it within an hour with a click or two. No other generation has had this outlet for expression, and this expectation of immediacy. In this respect – politics is archaic. We spend all day feeling ‘heard’ on social media, and then feel ignored by politics. We spend all our lives getting immediate gratification, and we have to wait five years for a chance to have a say, which might be ignored.

I first became interested in politics when I was about 14 years old. I’d already had Facebook for about 3 years – and that will be the same for many of us. We make the leap from being accustomed to having an outlet for expression, and a place to be heard – into the political world where we are ignored, voiceless and relatively powerless to change things.

I guess what I’m saying is this: We were a generation of kids that got used to having the power to order a pizza in pyjamas without leaving the bed. Then suddenly we’re told we’ve to walk to the nearest primary school to order, and then wait 24 hours to find out we’re not going to get the pizza we ordered. It’s no wonder we find it hard to accept that.

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