There are some doom-laden headlines from the BBC today:
“Less than a third of young people express any interest in politics, according to an official survey. It found 31% of 16 to 24-year-olds were fairly or very interested in the subject, compared with about half of those aged 55 and over.”
As ever, there’s a question about whether this represents a generational shift in attitudes or a simple fact of life-cycles. Are the younger generation simply abandoning politics in favour of TOWIE, or is this simply the process for everyone, starting life thinking politics is boring and realising over time quite how much it matters?
Either way, no political party should be happy with a situation in which the outright majority of people start adulthood saying they aren’t interested in the future of the nation.
Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in the question itself. To many people, saying you are interested in politics requires buying into the full process – from Question Time to PMQs, from political parties to the complexities of policy debates. Even in the supposed golden days of truly mass-membership parties, being “into politics” in that sense was still a minority pursuit.
In reality, an interest in issues and is more meaningful than the question “are you interested in politics”. It’s the difference between asking people if they’re interested in smartphones or asking them if they follow the manufacturing process and the rare earth metals market.
The concept of political apathy in the UK is largely – and ironically – a construct of those who are closely involved with the political detail. People may not turn out to vote, they may not like politicians, they may think the main parties are all the same, but none of those views mean they are apathetic. The disillusionment and fury which deters many people from political involvement is the opposite of apathy.
It’s a huge challenge to the existing political establishment, and a serious problem for anyone who wants to see turnout rise, but apathy it is not.
The best way to overcome it is to accept that “politics” is a damaged brand, which is far less engaging than its products. People care about immigration, about the price of a pint, about being a victim of crime, about petrol prices, about windmills, about fracking, about war, about peace, about jobs, about benefits, about the pound in their pocket, about opportunities for their kids.
Far better to start talking to people about those things, and then show how politics can change them, than to start the conversation by demanding you wear a rosette and listen to Today in Parliament.
This is why we’ve started to see a shift in the kind of information parties like to know about people. They don’t just want to be able to contact you – they want to be able to contact you about the issues that fire you up, and use them as a way into demonstrating why you should vote for them.
It’s much more effective to send a motorist an email about fuel duty which concludes that the Conservatives are helping, than it is to send everyone an email headlined “Vote Conservative” which buries the Government’s action on fuel duty in a general list of policies. It’s the difference between someone clicking “delete” or opening and reading it.
Yesterday, the Conservative email list received an invitation to “tell us which issues matter most to you, your family and to Britain”. It was framed as a way to influence the 2015 manifesto, a sort of giant polling exercise intended to find out which issues should feature most prominently, but its practical purpose was very different. This is data-enrichment, pinning down exactly who is interested in what so that when the time comes to vote, each person on the database can be urged to take an interest – not in “politics”, but in sorting out the issues that they care most about.