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Chloe Smith is the Member of Parliament for Norwich North.

This is the second article of four articles about Generation Y in democracy.

The first article explained that the majority of today’s 18-24 year olds are not voting.  Only 44 per cent turned out in 2010 and, since then, at worst, 88 per cent expressed the view that they don’t plan to vote.  There is evidence to suggest this situation is more extreme than it has been for previous generations of young citizens, and that Britain’s problem is worse than elsewhere in Europe and the US.

2015’s first time voters have “a considerable aversion to formal, professional politics” [1] – but they are interested in political affairs.  They are angry as much as bored, argues The Guardian [2] and, as I told that paper on this issue, that still means politicians need to show why politics works.

Across Europe, young people’s “repertoires of political engagement have become more diverse: from consumer politics, to community campaigns, to international networks; from the ballot box, to the street, to the internet; from political parties, to social movements and issue groups, to social networks.  This is reflected by the relative popularity of political organisations and associations other than political parties, which are well adapted to young people’s “lifestyle politics.” [3]

And, yes, in Britain their voting patterns are rupturing from their parents’, but “this is not to say that young people in Britain do not have strong civic values – in fact, British youngsters have relatively high levels of engagement in charitable work and volunteering.” [4]

Recent research from Demos suggests that “teenagers are motivated to make a difference in their community but the tools they use and the approach they take is different from those of previous generations.  They do not rely on politicians and others to solve the world’s problems, but instead roll up their sleeves and power up their laptop and smartphone to get things done through crowd-sourced collaboration.  They value bottom-up social action and enterprise over top-down politics.” [5]

Social, political and economic come together:  “the current economic climate has spawned a generation of young people determined to shape their own future.”  The Conservative message of enterprise surely matches “the Beta Generation – in constant beta testing mode, they try, fail and try again until they get where they want to be.” [6]

I founded the campaign in my constituency, working with young people just like this.  Our aim is to halve Norwich youth unemployment in two years.  This means getting 1,000 young people into work.  Local Norwich businesses are responding massively to the call with over 900 young people in paid work thanks to the campaign at the time of writing.  The Employment Minister described it as “pioneering”.  This kind of practical project has shown young working people that the community, including businesses and their Member of Parliament, is on their side and can get results.

It’s hardly surprising that new technology and new media will shift people’s means of expression.  The traditional parties know this, and it is no threat to the Conservatives:  on one count, there are now significantly more Twitter followers for the Conservatives (430,893) than Labour (316,237) and more in turn than formal party members (under 200,000 for each). [7]

However, can all these exciting new forms of politics work if you just skip the voting bit?  Who is really going to run the country, levy taxes, and be accountable?  There is a space in democracy with this generation’s name on it.  At some point, even if teenagers increasingly blur real life and the online world [8], the thousand virtual flowers that bloom online may have to come back offline in order to lead real people and do real things.

Certainly politics must adapt to new ways, and fast.  In my view it is an obvious and necessary reform to move voting online.  Young people also look at Parliament with little sympathy and see little reflection of people like them.  However, young leaders themselves know that they need to galvanise their peers into the core, functional parts of the political process.  Groups such as “No One Ever Told Me About Politics”, Bite the Ballot, the League of Young Voters and UpRising – all with membership aged under 30 – are doing great work in promoting the simple act of voting to their peers.  One organisation has had outstanding recent success:  the Members of Youth Parliament in Norfolk encouraged 38,000 11-18 year olds to vote in a record turn-out for the 2014 youth parliament elections.  In fact, this trebled the 2012 turnout and put turnout in the Norfolk County Council elections in the shade. [9]

Greater confidence is needed among young people themselves. Half of 2015’s new voters doubt their own understanding of what is going on in government and politics and only a fifth express confidence. [10]  So much for all that citizenship education, and young voters are not swallowing politics blindly from their parents, either, as only a tiny fraction of 2015’s first time voters (6%) plan to vote in line with family tradition. [11]

So is there not all to play for in taking our message to a new generation?

These voters have clearly explained how politicians should do it:  “listen to us”; visit us; act in our interests; communicate with us; deliver on your promises; have younger MPs and party members. [12]

Politicians need to gain young voters’ trust, communicate effectively and do the right things.  None of this is a surprise – good politicians have been doing this since the word go – but as my first article showed, it is urgently needed.  Politicians need to act now because, while the Baby Boomers are today’s largest cohort, by the general election of 2025 Generation Y (and younger) stands to be a competitive proportion of the voting population [13].

In my next article, I will examine the policies that are important to young people, and in the final article I will set out the action that the Conservative Party can take to ensure that it is the party of enterprising, sophisticated young people – the ultimate free individuals.

– – – – – – – – – –


[1] Matt Henn and Nick Foard, ‘Young People, Political Participation and Trust in Britain’, Parliamentary Affairs (2012) 65, 47-67

[2] Rowena Mason and Tom Clark, 26.12.13

[3] James Sloam, ‘The Outraged Young:  How Young Europeans Are Reshaping the Political Landscape’, Political Insight April 2013

[4] James Sloam, ‘The Outraged Young:  How Young Europeans Are Reshaping the Political Landscape’, Political Insight April 2013



[7] Bartlett et al, ‘Virtually Members:  The Facebook and Twitter Followers of UK Political Parties’, Demos, April 2013



[10] Matt Henn and Nick Foard, ‘Young People, Political Participation and Trust in Britain’, Parliamentary Affairs (2012) 65, 47-67

[11] Matt Henn and Nick Foard, ‘Young People, Political Participation and Trust in Britain’, Parliamentary Affairs (2012) 65, 47-67

[12] Matt Henn and Nick Foard, ‘Young People, Political Participation and Trust in Britain’, Parliamentary Affairs (2012) 65, 47-67

[13] Approximated from ONS 2010-based population projections

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