Slackers, disengaged, alienated, disenfranchised? However you look at it, the general consensus seems to be that there’s trouble afoot amongst the young’uns of Britain today. Top domestic priority amongst the political establishment is focused now more than ever upon this ‘lost’ generation, the ‘consumer generation’ - a group of thugs - whipped up in either an ecstasy of gangland terror in the suburbs or depressed and suicidal, alienated from the outside world of love and human affection behind their cold, mechanical computer screens. But whatever’s wrong or not wrong with the kids of today, they’re not voting and that’s a problem.
Any self-said democratic system needs electoral turnout to give itself legitimacy and to boast of any kind of credible victory - it seems that politicians today are becoming increasingly unnerved by the impassive reaction with which the general public are viewing their shenanigans. Voter turnout has been declining steadily for the past decade, with the youth vote suffering some of the most drastic falls - registering at barely around 39 per cent of eligible voters aged 18-24 in 2001, with current trends pointing to a low of 25 per cent at the next general election.
And hasn’t that kicked us all into shape! The Electoral Commission is sending out a ‘battle bus’ to give youngsters ‘more information’ about voting and elections, and constant study after study into the attitudes of the ‘youth’ towards political leaders and contemporary world events are being undertaken by think tanks, universities and newspapers across the country. But to top it off, as one of his first acts upon taking the reigns after Blair’s premiership, prime minister Gordon Brown has promised electoral and constitutional reform to ‘re-engage’ the youth of today in ‘politics’. Votes at 16 and sitting days at Westminster for the Youth Parliament - how superb! You can already hear the rancorous clapping of the concerned ‘liberal-ites’ of our Middle England suburbs applauding what must have been a pipe dream of the National Union of Students since its inception.
Strange and counter-intuitive as it may be, it seems that the main problem of youth politicisation for the government today isn’t about crushing it or watering it down. It’s about actually causing it to exist. The reality of the ‘radical youth’ with their unabashed enthusiasm and utopianism is all but wiped out, and according to the powers that be this plays a part in why we are left with such dysfunctional and dangerous kids. It seems that voting and political participation itself has become a ‘value’ innate to the smooth running of the system, without which all kind of horror envelopes society.
But since Thatcher’s destruction of the established left, the realignment of ‘Labour’ and the destruction of political ideology in favour of rhetorical centrism, what is there left in the mainstream of today’s politics to be passionate about? It may just be me, but I can’t quite imagine how so-and-so’s new tax policy, freeing up more money to be spent on our public services and underfunded schools would ever gain quite the same enthusiasm and following as the idea of a society built around mutual co-operation, ultimate liberalism or perhaps even the imposition of supposedly ‘natural’ cultural values. We’re talking about the difference between fighting for the rational governance of our institutions and fighting for an idea of how society should be. I don’t care how rational your tax policy is, Mr Brown - resigning yourself solely to the prospect of governance rather than pursuing an idea of enlightenment and social change isn’t winning any hearts and minds.
There are lots of institutions that are crumbling (or have already) as a result of new ways of living and thinking. Marriage, religion, petrol stations… minstrels… Unfortunately for those with romantic idealisations of the past, who prefer to conserve what exists rather than embrace the new tides of development, the weight of the masses of people (who have neither the luxury of time nor the inclination and belief necessary to conduct their ceremonies) is against them - and always has been. Some things die a death because they are no longer relevant. Why is institutionalised politics any different? In a world where the biggest difference between political parties lies with a PR bollocks-up here or a blue tie there, who’s going to give a blind bit’s worth of notice to voting? Not me.
But whether or not the ballot box survives this period of neglect unscathed, one of the biggest mistakes to make is to think that it is in any way an accurate indicator of the ‘politicisation’ of our nation’s youth. It has to strike you that really either the government is lying about its moral intentions or it doesn’t know what it’s asking for when it claims an interest in seeking increased political involvement. How many students and young people, whilst neglecting to vote, participated in the anti-capitalist protests of the 90s? The Stop the War movement today, or green movement? And are the ‘disenfranchised’ gangsta stars of our inner cities not credited with a sense of political or ideological awareness - when quite evidently (according to the press) they possess hedonistic values and nihilistic outlooks of intensely radical politics? Are we to condescendingly claim that their lack of interest in the structures of what we call our society is due to lack of understanding on their part, or perhaps might we see it as a logical conclusion from their social position? It is, after all, a political decision to ignore one’s social duties and norms.
These kinds of anti-establishment activities and ways of thinking should really be considered political, but are merely considered loutish and deviant - or dismissed offhand from the outset. But these are the politics from which the youth today are operating. No, we may not get the co-ordinated activity and coherent articulations of political ideas of the youth movements of the past. It’s true that in the past youth politics played a more organised and threatening role towards the establishment. But to be honest, that has more to do with the effective destruction of all manner of anti-establishment political bodies, from Trade Unions to the Greater London Council, than anything to do with the attitudes or outlooks of the youth.
So here’s a thought to all those ill-fated politicians trying to ‘engage’ Britain’s youth in politics today: You won’t get kids to vote by telling them more about government, giving them lessons in citizenship or encouraging them to allocate the new bin space on the student council. You’re not going to make it ‘hip’ by chatting to their favourite pop stars or trying your hand at break-dancing - and it’s not any cooler that you used to play in a rock band at school. Mainstream politics will become groovy again when people are given a choice between more than just Tweedle-Dum or Tweedle-Dee, and that’s not just for the youth. Politics in general will only be revived when there’s more to it than a mindless dedication to controlling the existing organs of society competently. In a prevailing ruling ideology of what amounts essentially to technocracy, democracy has no place, and nor does true debate or passion.
Charlie Winstanley is a 17-year-old A-level student at Blackburn College, Lancashire, studying History, Government and Politics, English Language and Geography.
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