I walked away from Conservative conference inspired. We made big pledges to the British people, like taking millions of people out of income tax and help for first-time buyers to afford a home – a massive issue for me and my generation.
But something niggled at me. In spite of the powerful policies, getting younger people like me to listen to and engage with them can feel, at times, impossible. I’m an outlier: young (and a woman and not white) and actively involved in politics.
The irony is that young people are obvious Conservative voters, as others like Chloe Smith MP have been saying. Even throughout the Blair years, the views and values of the young have moved steadily towards ours: socially liberal and economically conservative. A thirst for individual freedom and achievement, as well as suspicion of bloated public spending, signals people who would be right at home in our modern Conservative Party – or so you would hope.
This shift hasn’t translated into widespread young support for us as a party yet, but I know it can.
Young Conservative MPs, including Chloe Smith and James Wharton, as well as household names like Boris Johnson, are starting to reach the parts of the electorate others cannot. But as I talk to people on the doorstep or at the pub, I feel there’s a whole lot further we have to go. So what we can do?
This isn’t just a Tory problem. In a post-expenses, post-Savile, post-phone hacking age, all established institutions are mistrusted, political parties most of all. Even the Lib Dems, who rode into coalition on the young vote, are (rightly) in the doghouse after abandoning their tuition fees pledge.
Ed Miliband’s answer is votes at 16. Voting is, of course, important – less than half the people my age and below voted at the 2010 General Election. That’s not just a problem for now: research shows voting is a habit you need to pick up while you’re young or you’re likely never to learn it. “Older people vote today” doesn’t necessarily mean “young people today will vote tomorrow” – the latter will be largely determined by people’s experiences when they are young.
Offering votes to 16-year-olds does open the door to politics at a younger age. But what if you don’t want to enter? Or what if you’re one of the 17 million Brits in their twenties and thirties who already feel shut out? These are problems a voting age solution doesn’t fix. We need to think bigger – because surely we want young people engaged in politics between elections too. I know I do.
One of the answers, I feel, lies in digging deeper to address the reality, rather than the myth, of young people’s political engagement.
The story goes that young people mostly aren’t interested. But lack of engagement doesn’t equal lack of interest. It may surprise you to learn that many young people today would in fact like to get engaged: more than 60 per cent – three in every five – of 25-34 year olds actually want to know more about politics… but they don’t know where to start.
I got interested in politics when, after studying the subject at A-level, I became an intern at Watford’s then-PPC Richard Harrington’s innovative summer work experience programme. But so many people didn’t get that introduction to the political world.
That’s why I got involved in a cross-party initiative called No One Ever Told Me About Politics. Our name comes from surveying our peers around the country, and hearing many say time and again “I’d actually like to get more involved in politics, but I don’t know enough about it. No-one ever told me about it properly.”
For many people my age, they didn’t learn about it from parents or school, their friends don’t know about politics either and the media often don’t reach them. The problem isn’t “I don’t care about politics” but “I don’t have anyone to ask about politics”.
How do we start to address that? Well, where do my generation turn when we want to change anything? Increasingly, it’s online. You can laugh all you like about the ice bucket challenge (and that’s ok – it was meant to be funny), but, using digital tools, my generation mobilised thousands of people quickly on an issue we care about.
We can topple governments too – look at the Arab Spring where young people using Twitter and Facebook played such a key role. Isn’t it time we created more of a young digital revolution in British politics?
At No One Ever Told Me About Politics, we’re trying to do just that. We are developing an exciting new solution to bridge the information gap for younger people: it’s called Ask Amy. It’s a new app that makes finding out about politics as easy as texting a friend, the first step to deeper engagement.
Amy is a virtual friend: you type a question about politics to her on your phone, she messages you right back. It’s like Siri for politics. For example, ask “What does my MP actually do?” and she’ll tell you in a simple way. She can even tell you who your MP is, show you a photo and help you email them, if you like. She’s a young, fresh voice who can explain politics in a new way, avoiding jargon and spin. She can even crack a joke or two!
Ask Amy previewed at Conservative conference last week – and won an award there from telecoms company TalkTalk, including financial backing and support. Now we need to take it further: in true online style, we’re running a ‘crowdfunder’ to raise money to complete and launch the app in time for the General Election. But, we need to hit our £5,000 goal in under a week (please support it if you can!).
This kind of digital resource is, of course, just one of the interventions we need if we are to engage more young people in politics. But, by dealing with the deficit, we can take a step in the right direction for the other one – that political knowledge deficit my generation faces. Will you join us?