Laura Partridge spoke on behalf of the RSA Citizens' Economic Council on youth political participation at the Creative Collisions conference on 3rd May 2017. She reflects on what the RSA have learnt about youth engagement and participation through the Citizens’ Economic Council, as well as on the insights of fellow panel members and delegates at the conference.
We were thrilled to be invited by UK Youth to speak about youth political participation at the 2017 Creative Collisions conference. It gave us the chance to reflect on what we’ve learnt about youth participation through the Citizens’ Economic Council as well as to hear the incredible insights of fellow panel members and delegates. The debates left me with an over-riding sense that if we are to rebuild young people’s trust in democratic processes and representatives we need to get beyond the ballot box and engage in more meaningful conversations.
Young people under the age of 18 cannot currently vote in UK general and local elections. An attempt by the House of Lords last year to amend the European Union Referendum Bill to give 16 and 17 year olds their vote on the future of the UK’s relationship with Europe was overturned in the House of Commons.
We know that when under 18s are given the chance to vote, they do. In the Scottish independence referendum, 16 and 17 year olds were given the chance to vote and 80% of eligible young people signed up to vote.
However, we seem to be some way from achieving universal suffrage from 16 and I would argue that voting is not enough to break the current tide of distrust that young people have in our political system.
Lack of trust in policy-makers
As part of the Citizens’ Economic Council programme’s Economic Inclusion Roadshow, we delivered four half-day workshops with young people in the West Midlands and London designed to give them their say in this national conversation about economic policy.
We asked them to show us what they think of when they think of the economy with the aid of Lego. The recurring theme across nearly every model was the building of walls. Now, we accept that this may be in part owing to the Lego-based approach, but when we asked them to explain their models, young people provided clear and concrete (excuse the construction pun) explanations for their choices. They articulated a sense that ordinary people, especially young people, are shut out of decision-making on policy and they can only see a part of what goes on – the part politicians want us to see.
We delved deeper, asking young people to put various actors on a continuum of trust and found that those they trusted most were family, friends and teachers. Those they trusted least were politicians (closely followed by the media).
Of course, this is based on a relatively small sample of young people, but we know this trend to be more broadly true. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer polled 1,000 16 to 18 year olds across the UK. It found that a mere 24% of young people believed that the government would do what is right for the future of their generation.
Another way forward
It is clear that we need to find another way forward. Politicians, decision-making institutions and influencers must engage in more open and transparent dialogue with young people that both elevates their voices and builds the trustworthiness of the institutions they engage with.
We know for a fact that young people are ready for a deeper conversation. When we asked young people to tell us about the issues they care most about within the economy, they instinctively identified trade-offs in economic decision-making. For example, 16 and 17 year olds in the West Midlands spoke about HS2 and the trade-offs between being able to travel to better jobs and potential damage to the environment. School students in London recognised the impacts of poor quality housing on health and the public sector bills that would appear elsewhere in the system if the root problem was not resolved.
Indeed, there have been phenomenal successes in engaging young people in economic decision-making: most notably, perhaps, in participatory budgeting. In North Ayrshire, over 5,000 young people voted on how £60,000 of public sector funding should be allocated to youth projects. Meanwhile through Boston’s Youth Lead the Change initiative, young people have offered over 700 ideas for urban improvements through online crowdsourcing and following a period of review, they go to a public vote, open only to Bostonians from 12-25, to choose which proposals get the green light. In the programme’s first year alone, 1,500 young people cast votes at polling places in schools, community centres and transit stations across the city.
Time for change
This generation of young people are the first to benefit from compulsory Citizenship Education and yet they express complete disempowerment in the face of the policymaking machine. The fallout from the EU referendum demonstrates starkly the need for us to get beyond democracy based on binary choices towards deeper deliberation about the trade-offs involved in any policy decision and we have seen how much young people have to contribute to these conversations. Politicians and decision-making institutions are missing out on a whole host of insights unhindered by the weight of experience if they don’t start those conversations now with tomorrow’s voters. You might even say they’re missing a trick, electorally speaking. Indeed, it might be the only way to re-build young people’s trust in democracy.