When it comes to engaging people with politics – whether that’s making sure decision makers hear your voice about local matters or a broken street light right up to lobbying government for a change in the law – us Brits are a pitifully apathetic lot.
I was at Future Democracy 09, an excellent and well-established event which takes place annually in London organised by Headstar, looking at ways the internet can improve political engagement (‘e-democracy’) and I chatted to a researcher who had come from Italy from the University of Bergamo who had, fortuitously, investigated this very subject. Confirming my suspicions, the UK was found to be the most politically disenfranchised country in Western and Eastern Europe (link to research to follow).
It sounds clichéd, but the basics of government – how it is structured, how it works, why it is important – should start to be conveyed to children at school. I would argue this should happen at primary school.
This is why the panel session I attended on the ways young people are being engaged (and engaging themselves) in politics online at the annual event was of great interest. Also, the line-up was brilliant:
Chair: Shane Greer, Executive Editor, Total Politics
Beccy Allen, Project Manager, Hansard Society
Tom Lodziak, Web and Information Officer, UK Youth Parliament
Jo Woolf, Digital Producer, Battlefront, Channel 4 (Raw Television)
Tom Robbins, Campaigner, Battlefront, Channel 4
Tom set up ‘Random Acts of Kindness‘ (video explanation here) via Battlefront which has gained a massive following after he noticed “a certain difference in behaviour” after moving from Somerset to London. He reckoned using the web to engage young people in politics is just a catalyst, allbeit an extremely powerful one.
His campaign via the Channel 4 initiative aimed to encourage people to do nice things for others – giving a bunch of flowers to a stranger for example or my favourite, persuading over 1000 football fans to hug at MK Dons Stadium – but other young campaigners are lobbying to end homophia support torture victims and to end knife and gun crime.
Users upload their own campaigns and vistors to the Battlefront site can click to ‘agree’ or disagree’ with any of the camapign. And selection of campaigners is rigorous – they are even tested by a psychiatrist to ensure they can sensibly defend their argument.
Robbins also gave some very succinct advice to the audience which included people from councils, MPs, a Lord and government agencies in the UK and beyond: “Just use Facebook – every young person is on there.” But key and repeated messages from this session about engaging teens and young adults in political online initiatives were:
- Don’t overmoderate – if you overmoderate, young people will happily take their conversation elsewhere.But it’s worth bearing in mind this story from UKYP’s Tom Lodziak: ” We were targeted by the BNP. We decided to keep a very close eye on things so if they broke the rules, we’d remove them. Through dialogue with other young people you saw their views change One is now more in favour of UKIP – which is progress of sorts!”
- Don’t use jargon (applicable in any context in my opinion) As Beccy Allen from Heads Up said: “Better to use language everyone uses than language politicians use. It’s very difficult to engage young people if you’re talking to them like they’re ‘policy wonks’.”
- Technology gives young people the opportunity for political engagement which didn’t exist 10-15 years ago
- Politicians need a lot of explanation of how online debates work (“some think they have to actually sit in a physical venue and debate for three weeks there!” said Beccy Allen)
- “Doing an online camapign is incredibly labour intensive – the technology often lets you down” (Jo Woolf)Tom from the UKYP recounted a powerful anecdote of a bullied teenager who used the UKYP website to add anonymous comments and information about her experiences. She later became involved with UKYP and ran for council, gaining a top place.Here’s more on what they do. There are some really inspiring stories including one from the first Gypsy Traveller to have sat in the House of Lords as a member of the UKYP, a gay son of a heroin user who was in care as a child and a Zimbabwean refugee and former child drug dealer.
This allayed my fears a bit that these schemes, initiatives, sites and tools represented by the panel only reach the privileged ones.
I hope Government is listening.