Michelle Lowe is Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Community Safety at Sevenoaks District Council. She is a former Party Agent for Dulwich & West Norwood.
The scale of political apathy amongst young people is well known – both with the political process and politicians. We only need to look at turnout amongst 18 to 24 year olds to see how bad the situation is. So when I was given the opportunity to help the Conservative Students at the Coventry University Freshers Fair, I jumped at the opportunity of speaking directly to young people to find out what is so bad about politicians and the political process.
The fair was vibrant and exciting with an array of stalls, music in the background, a student dressed as the fairy Tinkerbell and people dressed as medieval figures. The atmosphere was like a carnival – and amongst this hustle and bustle I went to find the Conservative students. I spotted some socialists first: they looked quite busy, and then I found the Conservatives. There are only two political societies at Coventry University, since the Labour Society folded last year due to lack of support.
The Conservative stall was loaded with flap jacks, pens, giveaways from local business sponsors and CCHQ’s ‘Uni Times’, with Karren Brady’s six top tips to land your dream job after graduation. During the past two hours, they had already received nearly ten expressions of interest from potential members. To join, they need to pay £4 for a year that includes fortnightly meetings, debates, pub quizzes and film nights.
I was ready to engage with the younger generation. “Would you like to join the Conservative Students?’ I shouted to passers by. Most said: ‘No, we’re not political’. But I was not satisfied with that and called them closer to the stall with the bribe of a flap jack to find out why. “All politicians are the same”; “It does not matter who you vote for”; “None of them do what they say”; “Only rich people that go to private school are politicians.”
Ouch. I thought the usual door to door canvassing produced some bad results; this experience was similar only worse. Politicians of all parties really do have an uphill struggle to try to restore faith in the political system and in politicians across the board, but amongst the young it seems an even bigger battle.
I argued back. “How can you not be political?” I reasoned. “Every decision that affects your daily life is political from the tax on your beer, to whether you will be able to buy a home and get a job after graduation, to the state of the trains when you travel home – all these decisions have been made by politicians at one time or another.”
“Oh,” they answered as they started to engage. “Yes, the price of a pint is important”, they would admit, and some agreed that buying a home and getting a job was also important – although others thought it was a long way off and they would just worry about the “here and now”.
They asked: “What do you stand for?” and I answered: living within our means, and only spending the income we have – unlike the last Labour government that has left us all with an enormous deficit that will take most of our working lives to pay off. We stand for aspiration and helping you onto the housing ladder once you graduate, but most of all we stand for a sound economy so that there will be plenty of job opportunities for you.
Their answer was: “That all sounds very sensible, how can we find out more and yes we are interested in attending some of your debates and events.” So we signed them up as ‘”interested”, and at the end of the day had over 80 people registered in that way – and are hoping that at least ten will pay their £4 so that the society will continue.
The few Labour students were interesting. When they declared that they were Labour, I told them that if “Ed Miliband was their kind of man, good luck to them” and nearly all of them replied: “No, we don’t like Miliband – we’re just Labour”. So he is not able to appeal to younger voters either.
What was interesting was that students of law, economics and politics were more engaged than other disciplines, and engineering students also seem quite Conservative. A number (though some were international students) did not know who David Cameron and other politicians are.
We had a variety of literature on the stall, some with pictures of Margaret Thatcher. Some students commented that they liked her. Intrigued by this, since most of them were born after she fell from power, I asked why. They replied simply: “She did what she said.”
I think that is partly the key to voter apathy. People do not believe politicians any more. They no longer vote as their family votes: they see the constraints that politicians have to work with and conclude they are all the same. The expenses crisis, broken promises and having so many of our high profile politicians from a similar privately educated background has all taken its toll.
What is encouraging is that when we are able to connect with them they like what we stand for. They liked Karen Brady on the front of the CCHQ’s ‘Uni Times’ – so if we can only get an audience with young people I think we stand a chance.
Some of them are Socialist (not Labour), UKIP or Green because these options are different – not part of the established parties. When they do like politicians they like authentic personalities such as Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.
From my experience at Coventry, I think the future could be bright for the Conservative Party amongst the young because we stand for sensible things. Politicians in general need to clean up our act (as well get tarred with the same brush), be more genuine, give some of free thinkers and personalities more of a free rein to connect with people, stop making promises that we can not keep and try to engage more with our young people by going to them, since they are not going to come to us.
We can engage with younger people by taking events such as freshers fairs, careers fairs and other places that young people go more seriously; by talking to them in a language that they understand and about issues that they want to engage with – such as the quality of their current education and their future, and by using social media confidently. One of the students suggested citizenship classes at secondary school where pupils discuss ideas and which parties are most likely to share those beliefs – maybe that would help too.
It was a great experience ,and I hope that many of our interested parties pay their £4 or at least attend some of the debates and events put on by the Conservative students, and it was very encouraging to know that they agree with many Conservative principles. Yes, I think the Conservative Party can connect with students and young people, but we have to go to them to make our case.