POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT: Is Anybody Listening?

| 22 January 2003

Engaging young people in politics will only happen if politicians make the effort to engage with them. Dan Williamson looks at projects that teach those in power about youth issues

Ms Dynamite laid down the law in vociferous terms when she appeared on the BBC's Newsnight programme last December and said that politicians do not listen to young people.

The 21-year-old R&B singer refutes suggestions that young people are not interested in politics and the way the world is run, claiming they are put off by out-of-touch politicians who make no effort to engage with her age group.

But local authorities are increasingly encouraged to consult young people about the delivery of relevant services as a condition of their funding.

There are also national initiatives springing up to engage young people with the political process. And youth work is integral to this process as a bridge between politics and youth participation.

Fourteen-year-old William Kerslake is a prime example. He can't decide whether he wants to take up a career in politics or law when he leaves school. Neither is likely to present any great barriers, judging by his commitment to a recent youth participation initiative at the Houses of Parliament.

As an active participant at Chelmsford YMCA in Essex during the past two years, Kerslake was one of five young people who got involved with a project run by the British Youth Council's All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Youth Affairs.

Making Parliament real

Kerslake and friends were asked to visit Parliament back in February 2002 to give feedback for a guide to help MPs involve young people more during their regular tours of Parliament. The guide, Making Parliament Real for Young People - A Guide for MPs, was subsequently published in December.

Chelmsford YMCA's tour was timed to coincide with a briefing session for Access All Areas: Connecting Young People With Politics, a scheme set up by the YMCA England and political pressure group Charter88, designed to increase political awareness among young people by inviting them to each major party conference.

A guided tour of Parliament is unlikely to lead to a direct influence over government policy during a visit. But it would be nice to think that the creation of the guide indicates that the Establishment wants to improve its levels of communication.

The reality is that, despite the importance of young people in shaping future governments, political apathy is rife among the young. The parliamentary group on youth affairs estimates that just 39 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted at the 2001 general election. Ms Dynamite was one who abstained, despite it being her first chance to vote, because she believed no-one cared about what she thought.

The guide aims to make Parliament more appealing to young people by suggesting that MPs keep language simple, avoid acronyms and introduce human elements or excitement to historical stories.

Kerslake says: "We asked MPs to tell us stories that make it personal and interesting for us." He cites the example of one MP who tried to propose a Bill but was ignored for standing on the wrong side of a line in the House.

Kerslake hopes the guide will improve awareness among MPs, but he is not expecting a miraculous quick fix.

"I think we made a difference since they have included a lot of our suggestions," he says. "But some MPs might not follow it because they're more interested in the older members of the population."

Valuable reference source

Nevertheless, Claire Ward, MP for Watford and chair of the parliamentary group for youth affairs, believes the guide will be a valuable reference source for politicians to brief young people.

"For example, when the YMCA group came, they didn't know what clothes they had to wear," says Ward. "These things can build up a trepidation of Parliament, but I want young people to own it. Some of them sent their MPs here in the first place."

Ward hopes the guide will kick-start a dialogue. "We want MPs to talk to young people," she says. "We're also going to bring in young people to do presentations to MPs and hold question times."

Youth participation at local levels is also improving, following a statement in the DfES's Transforming Youth Work document that youth services must "involve young people in decision-making and promote citizenship and involvement in local democracy".

One body supporting youth involvement is Cambridge City Council. After starting youth participation projects in 1998, it has signed up to a pilot scheme for the Hear By Right youth participation standards, drawn up by the National Youth Agency with the Local Government Association.

Cambridge first began implementing the standards with the help of a group of young people aged between 12 and 17 called the Youth Evaluating Standards (YES) group. After identifying common ground for young people and council members, the group looked at which areas of the council they wished to contribute to and how to make debate more accessible to the young.

While the YES group interviewed council staff to gauge their commitment to youth participation, youth officers conducted an audit to compare the council's existing youth schemes with Hear By Right standards.

The pilot identified needs such as transparency, so that young people could influence decisions. A charter of shared values with partner organisations, such as the local Connexions partnership, was also set up.

Sarah Ferguson, youth development and participation manager at Cambridge City Council, says gaining the input of committed young people is vital in delivering such schemes: "You need to use different approaches, perhaps with staff doing detached work and meeting young people in the street."

Access to planning processes

Cambridge's youth participation work has influenced discounts on bus fares and local leisure cards, and led to the passing of plans for a skateboard park in Cambridge that had originally been opposed by local residents.

Young people were given access to planning processes, which resulted in nearly 100 letters supporting the skateboard scheme.

Involving young people in politics is also key for a scheme by the United Nations' children's fund, Unicef. Running since 1997, the fund's Put It To Your MP scheme encourages MPs to hold constituency surgeries specifically for young people.

David Bull, executive director of Unicef UK, says the scheme has radically changed some MPs' perceptions, particularly those with little experience of mixing with young people.

"Some MPs have been nervous about it, but they found it useful having young people's ideas," says Bull. "There is a lot of fear about involving young people in decision-making as it is sometimes felt they may not be constructive or helpful.

"There has to be a change of attitude. When young people reach voting age, they don't feel voting will make a difference. MPs need to realise that young people determine our future. If we don't engage them, they may express themselves in less constructive ways."

And who knows - if more projects like this come on-stream, the likes of Ms Dynamite may one day realise her ambition of turning the tables and becoming a politician herself.

CASE STUDY: TAUNTON DEANE COUNCILLORS GET THE LOWDOWN

As corporate youth officer at Somerset's Taunton Deane Borough Council, Darren Kendall's task is to ensure that the views and needs of young people are reflected in the council's policies, services and activities. A training and awareness scheme was set up to bridge the gap between council members, whose average age was 59, and young people.

The scheme was developed in partnership with children's charity Barnardo's, and used existing youth discourse such as the United Nations' Rights of the Child, the Children and Young People's Unit Strategy for Children and Young People and the NYA's Hear by Right standards document.

Training took place in a neutral, non-council building during a number of evenings, and challenged traditional council debating methods by giving young people the ultimate power through the use of whistles. These were blown if a young person felt council members were digressing or using jargon they could not understand.

Activity began with a practical exercise called 'Where do you stand?', where young people read out statements such as "sexual education classes in school encourage experimentation" and "young people who become pregnant under the age of 16 should have abortions". Members were then asked to stand in one of three areas on the floor marked 'I agree', 'I disagree' and 'I neither agree or disagree'.

The exercise created an immediate dialogue in an informal and fun way, and helped establish some common ground and an understanding of opinions.

There was a briefing on current policies and schemes for young people in the UK and around the world, and then members were asked to draw their idea of a stereotypical young person. The young people reciprocated with a stereotypical councillor, and both groups discussed the opinions thrown up by the exercise.

Council members were then asked how the council could assist in a specific scenario involving a young person. This exercise found that even indirect action or the simple understanding of an issue helped council members become more aware of youth issues.

Although one councillor found the training offensive, Kendall says the scheme gained positive feedback.

blog comments powered by Disqus