Teenagers see through career politicians

Howard Williamson
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The latest volume of the Journal of Youth Studies is focused on young people, new technologies and political engagement.

Various academic papers consider the ways in which new technologies may be connecting to issues such as youth participation, youth information - especially in terms of political education - and youth political activism. In attempting to draw together some of the themes from the five papers published, contributor Sonia Livingstone makes a couple of telling points.

First, she notes the "explosion" of initiatives - from governments, industry, youth organisations and social activists - seeking to address young people's assumed political apathy by tapping into their equally presumed enthusiasm for the internet. She adds: "Much of this is motivated by the undoubted irony that, over the past half- century, youth participation has declined at the same time as youth rights to participate have gained recognition."

Second, Livingstone registers the fact that, although the five articles provide "some encouraging signs", the inescapable truth is that "the creation of new websites is hardly sufficient to right the wrongs of youth disillusion with politics".

The discussion as to whether the well-documented disillusionment of the young with mainstream politics is counter-balanced by a stronger commitment to single-issue politics, such as the environment or animal rights, will roll on. But the general "democratic deficit" is not in dispute. Most young people have switched off from mainstream engagement: they do not vote, they do not join political parties and they articulate a broad feeling that all politicians are much the same: self-serving, full of bullshit and out of touch.

Many of us will accept quite quickly why young people have such views. The current generation of senior politicians have been in politics for all or most of their lives. They have never done anything else. The days of the ex-bus driver, miner, lawyer or teacher entering the House of Commons and rising to a ministerial position have almost gone.

The old guard of New Labour - those in their late 50s, like Gordon Brown - may have briefly done something else, but the young guns, who should theoretically be the ones to appeal to younger voters, never have. David and Ed Miliband, James Purnell and Andy Burnham started as researchers, became special advisers, then moved on to Parliament and ministerial positions. This now seems the most assured route to the highest levels of politics but it is devoid of what might be called real-life experience.

Such individuals may be briefed to slip in the odd real-life reference, but to young people it remains precisely that: odd. It simply does not ring true. There is no authenticity in the account. Using the internet to spark up greater interest and participation among young people is very unlikely to make much difference. A much more fundamental rethink of what we mean by democratic politics is urgently required.

- Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of Glamorgan.

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