A little less than half of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre’s 250 seats were full to hear a panel speak about the problem of getting young people to vote, of which a further half were the fabled young people themselves. The conference, called ‘How Can I Make a Difference?’, involved contributions from politicians and activists including Scottish Labour Party leader Iain Gray and ex-Scottish Youth Parliament chairman John Loughton, known for winning Big Brother Celebrity Hijack in 2008.
As the panelists opened the floor to questions, a number of older interested parties put across their views. However, it was the rare younger voice which seemed to speak the loudest about the issue. One boy around 15 years old, asking about some support specific to him, was told “I’m not responsible for that” by Iain Gray. As he demanded to know who was responsible, his frustration with the bureaucracy inherent in politics was obvious.
After the conference John Loughton gave his own take on the contentious issue.
Loughton has been involved in “grassroots community politics” since his early teens and was the former chairman of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP). The 22 year old grew up in Edinburgh on the West Pilton estate where his upbringing inspired him to campaign against social injustices in his local community.
“I saw things in my community that I wasn’t happy with; poverty and inequality”, he says. “I got involved because I thought the only way to change things was to change myself first. So I thought; stand up, get out there and make a difference. You are your own biggest barrier – people think, ‘why bother’? There are too many injustices in the world not to bother.”
Ideas and visions clearly come easily to Loughton as he bursts with liveliness and spirit. He is insistent that young people have something to say. Events like this, he says, show that young people do care, and he suggests that his generation is more “post-political” – keener on making concrete decisions and agreeing on them as opposed to the Punch and Judy disagreements of the party system.
“Of course I say use your vote, use your democratic right to have a say,” he says, “But if someone says to me that they’re not voting then I can understand why they choose not to do so. Politics isn’t sexy and it can be argued that there’s no real choice between parties any more.
“Maybe young people think that they get a hard time from the media and that nothing will change. Alternatively young people often think that no one reaches out to them. How is a gray haired man, in a suit with a pot belly and a middle management ethos meant to represent me?”
The ‘How Can I Make a Difference?’ conference highlighted the need for change in mainstream politics, with a young audience unconvinced by some of the panel’s rhetoric. Political experts and pundits remain unclear on what might happen at the upcoming general election, but trust in Government and politicians have fallen. Roughly only 37% of 18 – 21 year olds turned out at the polls in 2005 compared to 61% of those aged between 34 and 44. Plenty of explanations are given for this decline: weaker ideology and class allegiance, less differences between parties, and a growing cynicism towards politics.
Students have traditionally taken an interest in politics, but today the word politics carries negative conations for students as much as anybody. Edinburgh’s student population has varying attitudes towards voting;
Sian Lower, a student at Edinburgh Napier University, has chosen not to vote in recent elections. Speaking to the 21 year old just a short walk away from the conference hall, she talks about how she blames the politicians for being disconnected from real life.
“If you feel strongly about something then you should definitely vote,” she says. “It’s something you should do; I mean we fought for the vote. But because I can’t choose a policy for either party, that’s why I don’t. It’s like ‘oh young people need this’ – no, you don’t know what we need at all, so that’s why we feel more disconnected from them.”
Indifference towards politics was as common as expected amongst people on the streets, but contempt for politicians was equally prevalent. The recent expenses scandal has certainly done politicians no favours. Ben Graham, a 19-year-old student, thinks that politicians deserve their negative public image.
“I’m registered to vote but I don’t because every politician is the same – they say what people want to hear to get into power, but they’re as big liars as anyone. They don’t care about the public, none of them do. I don’t like any of them. I don’t vote because they don’t represent how I feel. When a party comes along that does represent me then I’ll vote for them but right now I can’t stand any politician. I hate them.”
If young people with an interest in politics seem rare, a young Conservative can seem like an endangered species to some. After all, one of the most popular of the countless quotes misattributed to Winston Churchill is “Show me a young conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart, show me an old liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains”.
Duncan Stewart, Chairman of Conservative Future Scotland, may sound out of place sitting in a busy cafe on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. He talks about how the young Tory movement is growing more accepted in a traditionally strong Labour city.
“People say that [they don’t relate the Conservatives to young people], but Conservative Future UK-wide is the largest physical youth organisation in Britain, certainly in terms of parties, so I would argue against that.
“I think the conservatives have always been good at incorporating young people. Maybe in the 90’s there was a dip and it was obvious that young people were really turned off by the Conservatives, but I suppose it’s been since David Cameron became leader, the youth side of the party has picked up.”
Of course Stewart is himself another exception to the rule of young people being uninterested in voting – his own organisation’s website has released figures saying that only 50% of students are expected to vote this year. He took an immediate interest in politics after a Modern Studies class in school.
“I was about 16 and it just went on from there. I joined the party six months later. Politics needs to be taught in schools more, show young people that they are important. It’s a clear case for me, as soon as I learned about it I wanted to get involved in it. I think it should be the case with more schools.”
A need for improved political education is a concern raised by a number of people during the ‘How Can I Make a Difference?’ conference, with the main argument being that the lack of knowledge it creates leads to disengagement.
A study released last year found that girls and young women particularly feel this disengagement from politics. Political Outsiders: We Care, But Will We Vote?, published with the help of the British Youth Council identifies problems such as lack of information about how to take part in local and national politics, and the lack of female MP’s at Westminster. There is still inequality in parliament: only 19% of MPs at Westminster are women, a shockingly low figure compared to other Western countries.
Orla Murray believes there are not enough female role models left in politics. The leader of the Edinburgh University Feminist Society (EUFS), she describes how difficult it can be for women to maintain a career involved in politics.
“Politics is seen as a male dominant arena and I think the culture in politics does discriminate against women. You can still take it that women will probably feel more obliged to look after children, so they can’t be there until six or seven o’clock in the evening and can’t be on call at all hours. There are a lot of strong women in politics – if not necessarily ones I believe in or agree with – but not nearly enough.
Murray, originally from Belfast, can’t understand why young people wouldn’t take the opportunity to vote. She says Northern Ireland’s troubled past has taught her how important voting can be.
“I think voting is very important, because if you don’t then what legitimacy do you have to campaign and try to make an impact? Even if you spoil your ballot at least you’ve tried to say none of the parties have my view, or whatever. At the end of the day they’re running the country so you have to try to have an input.”
With a general election just around the corner all the main political parties in the UK are desperately trying to win over the voting public. A recent charm offensive has done very little to restore interest in politicians now just seen as corrupt, boring and irrelevant. Like so many other people, she blames politicians for letting young people down.
“Basically, I think they could engage with everybody a bit better if they stopped talking sh*te – if there wasn’t so much political rhetoric and pandering to the media. I think the key is just being seen out and about and engaging and talking to people without falling into political rhetoric.”
A lack of connection between politicians and young people seems to be a main concern – they simply don’t feel represented at a political level. After the conference ended the audience began to mingle in the lobby with some of the panellists making a quick exit, missing out on the opportunity to interact with the younger members of the audience. As everyone began to leave it wasn’t hard to sense some frustration.
Voting is still the best way for young people to make a difference. John Loughton offers some advice to those who don’t care. When speaking about his own political motivation he uttered one of Ghandi’s most famous quotes, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
To see the full interview with Derek Couper, Chairman of the Scottish Youth Parliament, about the issues of young people and politics, please go to
Words by Michael Heggie
Photography by Alicia Warner