Do young people not care about politics or does politics not care about young people? Community Links teams up with Bite The Ballot and some of our young members in Stratford to challenge the stereotypes.
Since the change from ‘head of household’ to individual electoral registration, 800,000 people have dropped off the electoral register, and the move has particularly affected young people and students. The current system is not working for an entire section of our society. British politics hasn’t been kind to young people in the past few years – youth clubs are being closed, and university fees have tripled. The harsh reality is that a lot of Government decisions have been made which affect young people, yet by not voting, a majority of young people haven’t been part of that decision making process. This begs the question, do young people realise how deep-rooted politics is?
If you were playing a word association game, what words would come to your mind if someone mentioned ‘politics’? Perhaps middle-aged men, wigs, power, voting – or maybe corrupt, out of touch or even broken promises? Do you ever associate the ‘P’ word with opportunity? Or do you consider that actually much of what you do; in your school, in your youth centre, even in your own house is affected by politics. Its influence reaches a lot further than you may realise – and it isn’t just confined to the ambling corridors surrounding the 1,000 rooms inside the Houses of Parliament.
This simple idea is the driving force behind Bite The Ballot, a charity which aims to inspire and engage young people in politics, so they can become active changemakers in a society. While there are currently 7.4 million 16-24 year olds living in the UK, only half of those are registered to vote and – of those registered and eligible – only 43% turned out to vote in 2015. This is a worrying trend among young people in politics and a problem Bite The Ballot have tasked themselves to address.
“I would tell my friends to vote because I think it’s important to voice your opinion”
Last week marked the third ‘NVRD’ (National Voting Registration Drive) – an annual campaign launched by Bite The Ballot, addressing the stark lack of young people registering and voting in the UK. During the week of 2-8 February 2015, a record-breaking 441,500 people registered to vote, including 166,000 on one day alone. With registration rallies, workshops and events taking place in schools, colleges, youth clubs and students’ unions across the country, Bite The Ballot announced that this year, with the focus fixed on reaching the most-marginalised groups in society, NVRD has inspired an additional 134,000 citizens to take a stake in democracy for the first time.
Some of that success took place at our Rokeby community hub in Stratford, where Community Links joined forces with Bite The Ballot to allow for the voices of a group of young people to be heard on the issues they care about. Bite The Ballot’s community engagement officer, Ashar Smith, led the interactive workshop called ‘The Basics’ which started off with a debate round called ‘Vote on your Feet’. The small group of ten were asked questions such as ‘should the UK stay in the EU?’, to which all of them voted by steering to the left of the room for ‘Yes’. This was followed by ‘should we abolish the monarchy?’, ‘should the UK take in more refugees?’, as well as ‘should we bring back the death penalty?’.
The participants really got involved in the debates. Ashar said: “We’ve had great responses. We talked about whether 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote, which was a really interesting topic. One member of the group said ‘when I was 16 I didn’t know anything about politics because they don’t teach you about it at school.’ And that’s one of Bite The Ballot’s aims – to make political education a priority in every school’s curriculum”.
Having worked at a grassroots level for the last five years, Bite The Ballot know that young people care about political issues – it’s the lack of education that’s the problem. “There’s a lot of first time voters who come out of school when they are 16 or 17 and they can get disillusioned or disenfranchised because they are not given any information about how they can change things in local or national government”, Ashar explained. Ralph Adjei-Tetteh, 23, who has been going to the Community Links Rokeby youth centre since last September, agreed: “I think when it comes to talking about politics, most of us would not know anything about the Government and voting until we’re 18”.
By rebranding political jargon into plain English, Bite The Ballot are actively engaging more young people into democracy, and encouraging them to bring about substantive change. Ralph, when asked what he might say to his friends about voting, replied: “I would tell my friends to vote because I think it’s important to voice your opinion as it can affect a decision that might benefit us”.
“If young people registered to vote it would make a big difference to the democratic process”
The geography of politics is currently changing. MPs’ constituency boundaries are set to be redrawn based on the current electoral register, which will leave young people further under-represented at Westminster. As Ashar explained: “If young people registered to vote, then what they want would get listened to. It would make a big difference to the democratic process. But there are other things that need to change too. Why can’t we vote online? Why can’t the council register us automatically? And why don’t schools take political education seriously?”
At the end of the session when Ashar asked the group if they would like to register to vote, one participant responded: “Yes, I think my voice counts”. That answer in itself shows the worth of NVRD and why Bite The Ballot’s work is needed to engage young people in democracy. Likewise, our Rokeby youth centre and other Community Links hubs, are playing a major part in fostering the concept of community development and democracy. By providing important spaces for people to address local needs or problems, they signify a symbol of togetherness and empowerment which work towards achieving positive futures.
Most of the members who participated in the workshop for NVRD at the Rokeby hub are being supported by Talent Match London and attend the centre most Fridays. Talent Match London is a brilliant initiative focusing on unemployment hotspots in the country by taking a partnership and youth-led approach. Funded by the Big Lottery Fund and led by London Youth, Talent Match supports young people into sustained jobs, overcoming personal barriers on the way to employment. If you would like to know more information about the hubs and programmes Community Links run, please click here.
And don’t forget, make sure you register to vote. You can do it online at: www.bit.ly/RegisterToVoteNOW.