Youth Engagement and Brexit

22 Jun

Written by Raf Galdeano, Accountability Advocate at Restless Development and political activist, just completed her first year at university, and Cat Tully, founder of School of International Futures and formerly in the FCO and Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.  We discussed the EU referendum, what it means for UK citizens – especially younger citizens – and what it says about UK politics…  This is the result….[Raf in Italics]

A statistic from the 5th of June tells us that in the 30 days before voting registration closed, over 1.6 million people registered to vote in the EU referendum. Of that, 900,000 were young people aged 18-34.   This will improve the 2010 figures showing that 94% of people aged 65 and over were registered to vote, compared to 55% of people aged 18–24.

These figures create a transformational opportunity.   They also reflect an unacceptable failure in current politics.  Now that voting registration has closed, we should focus on the undignified scramble for young people’s votes in the weeks leading up to it.  What does the way that the EU referendum debate with young people has been conducted say about the UK political system?  Outreach and engagement of youth in the Brexit debate has been inadequate, and when done, done transactionally, superficially and cynically.  This is symptomatic of a wider issue in terms of treatment of youth as citizens.  It is not discussed or acknowledged sufficiently that young people are not treated as fully-fledged participants in political and policy debates.  This is bad for society, resulting in unrepresentative and limited policy approaches as well as intergenerational equity issues.

The failure to engage with youth perspectives on the political choices facing us is one – of various – problems with the Brexit debate so far.  It is both a symptom of and an accelerator to a failed political system.  Regardless of the internal Conservative Party political bun-fighting that led to the referendum being called, the choice whether to remain in or leave a high-cost supranational body like the EU is a valid question to ask.  UK citizens make trade-offs to be part of the EU and give up financial resources and policy autonomy in return for an increase in scale, impact and efficiencies in addressing local, regional and global policy challenges.  These trade-offs should be regularly examined in order to ensure accountability of a more distant political system and to ensure that all citizens enjoy the benefits of membership.  

We were hoping that the Brexit conversations would create more space to discuss ideas and solutions about how to do so.  After all, the Scottish referendum had an excellent effect.  It acted as a huge civic education and engagement drive.  Led by one side in particular, the politicians did a sterling job of the traditional business of politics – namely reaching out to citizens, listening to their concerns, and building a policy platform reflecting their constituencies’ interests.  In this dialogue, the voice of young people was heard.  The lowering of the voting age to 16, active youth networks and the role models of young political representatives all meant that youth were a core part of the discussion.  This is to the ongoing benefit of the Scottish body politic, regardless of the outcome of that particular referendum.  In contrast, the EU membership referendum discourse has singularly failed to develop a constructive debate – and reach out to young citizens.

It does not take a genius to know that if you engage a demographic in political processes and in debates that matter to them, they will respond. Engaged, empowered and valued groups of society will vote in your elections, they will believe in your policies and most importantly will become the type of citizen that a government should strive for. Not rocket science, right? From the show put on by both sides of the Brexit debate, you honestly could believe that it was.

As a young person I have watched with despair as over the past six months a group of (mostly) old, white men have engaged in cat-fighting in the hope of winning political points. The Brexit debate has succeeded in dividing our government, it resulted in Bob Geldof chasing Nigel Farage down the Thames, and it has inspired the sort of rich political discussion in my peers and age group that is so missing from the debate. I have sat in my Student Union bar as members of the Remain and Leave groups debated for two solid hours, and read more Facebook posts than I could count urging others to register and; making the case for both sides. Where has this energy and depth of discussion been in the official Stronger In and Leave campaigns? It’s been in a painful #VOTIN video clearly made by someone who has never talked to a politically engaged person under 30 and a month of political activism aimed at taking advantage of a demographic that is still more likely to vote “in” (64% vote in according to in a year where month after month a Conservative government has shown its disregard for their youth. I do not have to write the various ways in which the government has messed around with our education, cut our services and almost demolished the housing market but based off of these successive policies and decisions it is not hard to see that young voters are being used for votes.

The trends between political inclusion and the ensuing participation are, obviously, not exclusive to youth. Boris Johnson on the 23rd May attempted to use the LGBT community to boost the leave campaign, claiming that LGBT people should leave the EU as “It was us, the British people that created that environment of happiness and contentment for LGBT people and it is absolutely vital that we fight for those rights today because they are under threat in Poland, in Hungary, in Romania and other parts of the EU where they are not protected in the way they are in our country”.  Boris Johnson as a mayor was fairly silent on the rights of the LGBT community, and if he understood the community as a place of love, acceptance and tolerance would know that the way the community works in face of adversity or lack of tolerance in other countries is not by withdrawing from them. The way that politicians will approach a community or marginalised group with no regards to the nuances of this community and approach issues like a bull in a china shop exemplifies the way that politicians will time and time again aim their strategy at a community or age group to secure votes.

So despite our hopes, the Brexit discussion has been neither inclusive nor substantive.  This is really problematic in at least three ways:

First, there is a major intergenerational equity issue. The “intergenerational democracy deficit” is unlikely to have been fully solved by the recent increase in registrations.  As I said three years ago:

 The issue boils down to this: should a more vocal and active older generation set the decades-long-term context for the UK’s ongoing relationship with its geographic neighbours for the subsequent generation?  An Ipsos-Mori poll from Nov 2011 showed that only 28% of over 60s would vote to stay in the EU should a referendum be held immediately, versus 50% of under 35s.  I would go as far as to argue that there is basis for incorporating EU membership into the current “inter-generational inequity” narrative: a key national asset (UK’s EU membership), valued highly by the younger population, is being squandered by the older generation who will pass onto the next set of political leaders a UK-EU relationship significantly poorer than the one they themselves inherited.

Second, it means that we are missing THE critical issue in the debate about European membership.  Which is that this is not a failure about European level politics, but an egregious failure of the UK national political system.  The tensions reflected in the Brexit debate are due to the failure of national level politics over the past decades to redistribute the net economic benefits of European Union membership (and globalisation).  Inequality has increased.  Access to public services are more restrained.  Job security and safety nets have been eroded.  No wonder some UK citizens wonder what’s in it for them.  This is compounded by a systematic reluctance by the UK government to give credit to the successes of European collective policy action (e.g. on development, human rights, employment rights, regional security and trade) and systematic buck-passing upwards (e.g. illicit financial flows, regulatory policy).  Se we are in a situation where the EU membership debate is actually Alice’s looking glass reflection of the breakdown of the UK political and social contract.

Finally, the lack of young people’s voices in this debate has contributed to the UK’s whole discussion about the EU is narrowly focused on a narrow aspect of economic and migration issues.  It has not been a dialogue, but two sides broadcasting across each other. This tedious broadcast (and the energy and resources invested therein) has covered a subset of a subset of issues – in ad hominem and grandstanding statements.  Where are the spaces for discussing ideas for building accountability, reducing inappropriate corporate lobbying, enhancing citizen responsiveness and policy effectiveness at an EU level AND at a national level?  Where are the debates about the geopolitical and security benefits that come from the EU – as a global leader on human security issues, champion of climate change policies, and general soft power lever?  But also the critiques of how it has failed to act effectively in the Horn, Sahel and Mediterranean?  These are the issues that I hear being debated by young people – and it is unacceptable we do not harness these ideas, viewpoints and resources.

So the real question is, why does this matter? Why does it matter if young people are used as Remain camp pawns when actually at the end of the day a Remain verdict would overwhelmingly help young people? I mean we were engaged, right? The Remain campaign has been doing their best to include young people on their party campaign trails and the video was specifically aimed at us, so what’s the big deal? The problem is this: the lack of real, meaningful participation of young people at all levels of the EU debate is symptomatic of a wider problem with civic participation in the political sphere. In the general election last year, we saw the same things happening. The trend goes like this: lack of youth voices in a debate, followed by youth issues highlighted in a process or discussion, followed by a short period of intense focus…which peters out as soon as the aims of the movement have been achieved.

As Restless Development’s Brexit Live debate showed, an inclusive, comprehensive and engaging debate by young people for young people is not impossible. The debate emphasised the ease with which young people can and should be at the heart of political discussion, and actually that young people are vital in terms of creating a real, democratic environment. If young people are not just the leaders of tomorrow but the creators of change today, where is our representation? Let us break the assumption that we can be ignored and marginalised until politicians need votes, and demand to be at the heart of politics so that beyond the results of the EU debate, positive change can occur. Let us celebrate the fact that young people are vocal, dynamic and outspoken on issues that matter to them, and use the critical thinking that I have seen by my peers when looking at the EU referendum to construct a new system of discussing and implementing politics that is constantly reflective, innovative and forward thinking.

I would like to explore the reason why this happens. Maybe it has something to do with the strict parameters within which a citizen is constructed. In the eyes of a politician, a voter should be a property owner or a renter, must have children, a full time job. A voter should have reached certain milestones that politicians have reached and these parameters are all too often ones that young people have not, and have no reason to have met. An example is the age at which workers can obtain a Living Wage (25); which is the biggest and most obvious way I have seen so far of telling people under the age of 25 that they do not matter. That their contributions do not matter and as such, they are separated by wage gaps. We need to start discussing who in British politics is a valid voter, and who is a voter that should be integrated into the discussion and listened to. The people I see, to use a wonderful phrase, are “male, pale and stale” and this is not what the country is. The UK is a country filled with hundreds of diverse communities and people of all ages and to not hear the voices and opinions of these people is, in my opinion, a disservice.

I believe that both sides missed a vital opportunity to include young people in their debates. I will not knock the efforts of events that did have young people at the heart, but young people are also not foreign concepts needing their own events; young people can offer the same quality of debate as the next Boris or David, if only given the chance at all levels.

Why the emphasis on economics? There is a wealth of information at our fingertips, number after number after number that reduces all of the incredible human rights and environmental advocacy the EU does to a secondary issue. We cannot put a price on the learning opportunities the EU has given young people, or the protections guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights; and neither can we ignore that in this interconnected, globalised world the UK cannot stand alone as a solitary power.  All a lot of people understand is this; we put a lot of money into this EU machine, and not a lot comes out. But it is not just the quantitative effects that matter; it is the qualitative, harder to measure benefits that should be celebrated and championed such as the free movement between countries which increases job opportunities and the ability to travel, the rights which are enshrined in EU law, the fact that in this globalised world we now live in the UK cannot survive on the tails of its’ colonial past and must work cooperatively to remain a competitive world leader. To remain a part of the EU is to say that cooperation is effective and better than splitting away, and a huge punch in the face to people like Nigel Farage, who say that people who are not like you are fundamentally bad.

So we vote to remain. Not in support of the political leaders who have led the campaign to stay in the EU. They have utterly failed in their duty of care to the country and deserve to resign in shame.  We vote remain.  But not against those who vote for Brexit, due to their concerns about reducing life opportunities and growing, consolidation inequality.  We hope together to create a new political reality where concerns about income and standards of living, access to health and education are met. We vote remain, not to support an out of touch European elite – they have much to change. But we vote remain because we think that the solutions to the problems that face the UK are collective ones.  And the challenges that face us – from climate change, to inequality, to insecurity, to waves of immigration – are Ours.   They belong to us to address and resolve within our wider communities – cities, countries, and as a European region, as well as beyond through the UN and NATO.   The alternative is to start down a historically well-trodden slope-y-shouldered path that starts with blame and travels through guilt, distrust, anger, shame and violence.

All political actors and networks – from political parties to advocacy groups and local community bodies – need to invest in genuine outreach to young people.  This means putting the resources – time, money and effort to engage all rather than token representatives of youth. It means going to where young people are already having conversations and listening, rather than convening “set-piece” events designed for image rather than substantive exchange.  And it means maintaining an ongoing dialogue that includes reporting back on how young people’s input has been taken into account, implemented or not implemented, and why.  

At the School of International Futures, we use an approach that explicitly brings in younger voices as representative of future generations.  Our purpose is to work with current leaders to engage with the future in order to make better decisions today.  But when we talk about 2030 – whether on Europe, migration, climate change, the management of our water systems or pensions – young people’s perspectives really matter since they will be the citizens and leaders of that future world.  They will inherit our decisions – for good or ill.  Inspired mainly by the Sustainable Development Goals, other countries have established a Commissioner of Future Generations, a Minister of the Future, a parliamentary committee of the future, or an Ombudsman for Children’s Rights.  It is time that within our political system, we appoint someone whose role it is to champion the importance of preparing for the future now.  

Let’s use the growing dialogues about embedding the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK as the start of a revolution in how we do politics.  Let’s involve all UK inhabitants – including under 18 year olds –in conversations about the future.  Let’s take to heart Goal 16 and create “effective accountable and inclusive institutions” that truly harness the views, ideas and resources of all of our great population to transform the future in our communities, in this great country and beyond.

So what can we do to change this status quo? I say don’t be silent. Don’t ever be silent. For this referendum especially I recommend educating yourself on the matter if you haven’t already (the BBC has some great material on the referendum), and making your voice and vote count. In general, find a passion and pursue it. It sounds cliched but become active in whatever makes you excited. I know so many young people who are doing incredible things because they have found an issue and become involved in it. If we do not stay silent, they cannot ignore us. So to all you social media activists, keep on doing what you are doing. Join organisations, write to your MP, look out for any and all opportunities. Protest, write articles for your university or college newspapers like The Tab. Talk to your peers and keep this grassroots work going, but most importantly we need to tell decision-makers that we are not happy with the current political system and the way that it exploits those it does not represent. By not including young people in debates and decision making at every level, decision makers and leaders are missing out on all of this intelligence, energy and enthusiasm that I see every single day in all of you.


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