Jan Royall on the dual importance in politics of hearing young people’s concerns and making it easier for them to express their views
On Friday, Steve Bassam, Ray Collins and I went to Crawley to support Labour’s brilliant parliamentary candidate, Chris Oxlade. Prior to engaging in a bit of traditional doorstep campaigning, we visited St Wilfrid’s – an impressive school with a great ethos, plus some fantastic staff and pupils who we were fortunate enough to talk to.
In the run up to the general election, Labour is holding ‘Shape Your Future’ conversations with young people all around the country. The ideas and issues that arise from our consultation will then form the basis of our young people’s manifesto. Our conversations with the St Wilfrid’s students began with the majority in the room saying they didn’t really have an interest in politics or participation. That common refrain "What's the point, you're all the same" came up over and over again. As the debate opened up however, and we moved away from party politics onto issues that concerned the students, a more lively discussion posed some challenging questions.
As with many young people, students at St. Wilfrid’s felt let down by broken promises on the Educational Maintenance Allowance and university tuition fees, and by those politicians who had over promised and under-delivered. But they were also concerned about tax evasion by the Googles and Amazons of this world, inequality, the need to create wealth and jobs that paid the living wage in order to support public services, the global impact of foreign interventions, and ensuring our health and social care system provides for all – from infants to the elderly.
These curious, creative and connected young men and women clearly demonstrated that their generation is interested in society as a whole, and policies as they affect individuals, families, communities, our nation and beyond. They understand that we live in an interdependent world and that their future lies in continued membership of the European Union. At the start of the discussion, only a handful were preparing to vote in the general election. By the end, it was many more.
It would please me no end to hear that they had all gone home intending to vote for my party; but I would be equally delighted if they had left determined to register to vote, so that on 7 May they would have the chance to tell politicians what they want our country to look like. Coincidentally, our Crawley visit also anticipated this Thursday’s ‘National Voter Registration Day’, organised by Bite the Ballot.
Sadly, some of the St Wilfrid’s students won’t be able to vote this year because they won't have yet turned 18, and a few were pretty angry about this. There was strong support for Labour’s commitment to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, but they wanted assurance that we would ensure better citizenship classes and practical politics advice. They want to know what each party stands for, as well as basic information on how and where to vote.
I was glad that we were able to assure the students that such concerns are already informing Labour policies and to say that it wasn’t too late to tell us what they think about other issues. We are encouraging all young people to engage with our ‘Shape Your Future’ consultation so that we know what matters to them. It's time that political parties and governments took proper heed of their views, concerns and needs.
The Coalition has failed our younger generation – the very people on whom the future of our country depends and who can help rebuild Britain. I can't help but conclude that this is because they are chasing the grey vote. To ensure that this doesn’t happen in future, young people must both find and use their voice and go out and vote. The job of politicians should be to enable and empower them to do so.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords and a Young Voter Campaign Co-ordinator for the upcoming general election. She tweets @LabourRoyall
Published 2nd February 2015