It’s hard being a politically-engaged young person in modern Britain.
For a start, we seem to be in a minority.
Voting has not become a habit for the younger generation in the way it was for their parents and grandparents. Research from the Electoral Commission back in March found that 56% of under-35s were not even registered to vote.
Also, as this table shows, the amount of young people not voting is going up and up (from here):
Perhaps this picture I’ve painted is a little too bleak. Research by Nottingham Trent University from 2003 suggests that 53% of 18-24 year olds are interested in politics, as opposed to 15% who have no interest at all. The main feeling therefore is impotence: 83% thought they had no influence on the political system at all.
What happens when young people actually do find a cause they care about, like opposing the tripling of university fees? Well, then even if 50,000 people peacefully protest, all the attention goes on 200 idiots who decide to kick in windows. The peaceful majority get damned by association.
The belligerent minority are then invoked by the police to justify some truly despicable tactics. There’s kettling, for a start.
Kettling occurs when the police hem in protestors and refuse to let anybody in or out, possibly for hours at a time. You can’t get anything to eat or drink, or go to the toilet.
This tactic has been controversial for a while, and there’s a very disturbing video taken of the police crushing protestors into a kettle, whilst the shouts of “But there’s nowhere to go!” become more and more desperate. It’s quite harrowing to watch.
Then there’s the issue of police brutality against some peaceful protesters. Police horses charged a group of kettled protesters, including 13-year old schoolchildren. Some students have suffered broken collarbones as a result of police heavy-handedness.
Lest we forget, I want to bring your attention to the tragic case of Alfie Meadows. Alfie was hit over the head by a police truncheon and spent three hours in intensive care because of bleeding into his brain.
The bludgeoning of Alfie Meadows has received far less attention than the wife of the heir to the throne possibly – or possibly not – being poked with a stick. This depresses me more than I can say, whilst also being a striking example of the priorities of the British media.
Often the message to those students protesting is that they should enter mainstream politics: “That’s how you change things”. Except in May many students did that. They campaigned and voted for the Liberal Democrats. According to a YouGov poll, 45% of students voted Lib Dem in May, compared to 24% for Labour and 21% Conservative.
Students campaigned for the Lib Dems despite cynics telling them that it was futile. I did some leafleting for a Lib Dem candidate in Oldham. “Why are you bothering to campaign for them?” I was asked more than once. “You know they’ll never get in”.
Well, guess what? The Lib Dems did get in. Once they were in government, they voted to triple university fees, despite seven million people voting for Lib Dem MPs who pledged to vote against any rise in fees.
A democratic solution to the issue of university fees has therefore not worked, so it’s hardly surprising that students took to the streets in anger at this.
As soon as they did, students were patronised and told that they are naive. “What did you expect? Politicians never keep their promises”.
Politically-active young people, then, can’t win either way. If they protest, they assumed to be troublesome, good-for-nothing rioters. If we get involved in mainstream politics, it’s seen as naive or futile.
It’s therefore no wonder that few young people even bother to vote. In a few decades we could have a whole population who are either apathetic to the political process, or who are completely disenchanted with it.
Our political system is broken. And I see nobody in any major party with the desire or the ability to fix it.