Politics is a Two-Way Street

This year’s local elections brought excellent results for the Liberal Democrats. With 30% of the vote, this was our strongest ever performance a nationwide election, helping take control of a further eleven councils, from both Labour and the Conservatives. Good news for the Lib Dems? Certainly! Less good news, however, is the very low proportion of people who chose to go the polling station to exercise their democratic right to cast a ballot. The consensus among the psephologists seems to be that two thirds of people who could have voted stayed at home. In some parts the country, only one in ten those entitled to vote actually did so. This should be of concern to those who care about participatory democracy – whether you’re Lib Dem, Labour, Tory or anything else. Among those least likely to have gone out and voted were – you guessed it – the young. Politicians across the spectrum have been throwing up their hands in recent years and wondering why. People of student age today are generally better educated, better informed and more well travelled than those of previous generations. While students in the 1960s were famed for their radicalism, students of today are labelled as apathetic. Some of this, of course, is crude stereotyping. There were many people in the 1960s who never protested against the Vietnam War – or indeed against anything at all. Similarly, the run up to the Iraq War showed that many of today’s young people care passionately about such issues. At the same time, it is all too easy to lump everyone together with the catch all phrase “young people” as if everyone aged 16 to 25 had homogenous thoughts and actions. This is clearly absurd. Nevertheless, it is true that those under 25 are voting less often today than ever before. Part of the problem undoubtedly lies with those of us who are elected to public office – whether that’s in the House of Commons, the local council or something else. Politics is still seen largely as the preserve of white, middle class, middle aged men. Our political institutions simply do not reflect the society in which we now live – a society which is more cosmopolitan and more ethnically and culturally diverse than at any time in our history: and for this the Liberal Democrats must take our share of the blame. Among our 53 MPs, only 5 are women and none are from an ethnic minority community. I am working hard to change this, and under no illusions that we must do better. Politicians have also been too lazy in actually reaching out to young people to bring them into the electoral process; having taken the rather easier option of writing them off as apathetic. In this regard hope that the Liberal Democrats can take more credit. Lib Dem Youth and Students are, I know, very active in trying to engage young people with politics – and not just with Lib Dem politics. Every year LDYS organise ‘Westminster Day’ when they invite thousands of Sixth Formers from across the country to meet and question politicians from all parties as well as members of media. The Liberal Democrats would also lower the voting age 16. Our political opponents have argued that 16 is too young to able to cast an informed vote. I disagree. If the State feels that 16 is appropriate age for you to join armed forces, get married and have children, then why shouldn’t you allowed to vote? If, at 16, you pay taxes then why on earth should you not have the right to elect Government that will spend those taxes? Someone once said that the public get the politicians they deserve. I’m not sure whether I’m the best person to argue the truth of this. But it is true to say that politics two-way street. We politicians must do more – much more – to try engage with voters. But the answer to having politicians the people don’t like, or a political system people find remote, should not be refuse to participate. Casting your vote is a much more powerful tool. The more you do, the more politicians will have to listen.
ARCHIVE: 2nd Week TT 2003