2 March 2015

“This is the first time someone has asked me about politics”

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The Voice of a Generation tour kicked off in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, hometown of Helen, our 19-year-old Voice of a Generation reporter. A safe Labour seat since the constituency was formed in 1983, there was little feeling among those we spoke to that the election in May will result in anything other than a continuation of Dan Jarvis’ tenure as the Member of Parliament for Barnsley Central.

The young voters we spoke to, however, despite their hunger for a party that placed great emphasis on social values – and very negative views about the Conservative Party – were not the dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters their parents and grandparents were. In fact, regardless of the Labour heartland they lived in, they felt overwhelmingly that voting ‘none of the above’, if it was available on the ballot paper, was as good a use of their vote as giving it to any of the main parties. This mirrored the nationwide picture given by our recent poll.

Spending time with students at Barnsley College it became clear that there were two recurring themes that were agreed upon almost unanimously: that they felt politicians were largely self-serving; and that there doesn’t appear to be much separating the main parties from one another. The news that day – with Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw caught out offering to use their influence in exchange for cash – only served to confirm their highly sceptical take on politics in the UK.

The discussion turned at one point to the other choices on offer, namely the Green Party and UKIP. In the 2011 by-election UKIP candidate Jane Collins came second, and odds suggest that UKIP are well ahead of the Tories and Lib Dems, but none of the young people we spoke to had any inclination to vote for the Purples. They were put off by UKIP’s immigration rhetoric, feeling that while there were certainly issues surrounding immigration in the UK, most of those who come to live here are hard-working and contribute to society just as much as anyone else. When talking about issues such as unemployment, benefits, public services and education they felt that it was deeper societal problems that were holding them back, and that UKIP too often sounded like it was scapegoating immigrants rather than offering constructive alternatives.

The Green party fared little better. Although one young voter said that if there was a candidate standing in Barnsley then he would probably vote for them, the wider group was far from convinced by the Green’s policies.

In the evening we were lucky enough to attend an Addaction group at the Barnsley YMCA aimed at giving local young people somewhere to go and something to do in the evenings. Those we spoke to were less engaged in politics than some of the students from earlier in the day, but many of the issues raised were very similar.

“This is the first time someone has asked me about politics” explained Connor, 16, who felt that politicians and politics is too far removed from everyday life and normal people.

Talking about how engaged young people are with politics more generally, the college students felt that they were probably a lot more interested in politics than a lot of their friends – and they felt very strongly that it was something everyone should be engaging with from a younger age. There was a lot of support for greater emphasis on teaching politics in schools. “You can choose not to be interested in politics, but you can’t choose not to be affected by it”, 17-year-old Liam told us.

Not having enough understanding of the difference between the main parties was noted as a major reason why young people might not vote in the General Election by more than 1 in 5 18-22 year olds in our recent survey.

What became much clearer for me after speaking with the first-time voters of Barnsley is that the low youth turn-out at the ballot box shouldn’t simply be written-off as apathy or lack of interest in politics. What many of the people I spoke to in Barnsley feel is disenchantment with a system that, to them, doesn’t listen to their concerns and provides little opportunity for meaningful change.

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