Croydon’s politicians need to engage young people


By - Wednesday 26th February, 2014

Ben Flook suggests greater engagement of young people in politics could be crucial in influencing elections


Legoland isn’t the only way to get youngsters interested in parliament. Photo by Matt Harris, used under Creative Commons Licence

With local elections in Croydon only a matter of weeks away, much attention has been placed upon the marginal wards in determining which party has control of Croydon Council for the next four years.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have been fiercely concentrating their resources on the ‘bellwether’ wards, with activists pounding the streets week in, week out accompanied by prominent local politicians in a bid to appeal to the electorate. Yet, meanwhile, there exists an apathetic, disengaged and disenchanted social group whose vote will be crucial in determining Croydon’s balance of power: the youth.

The recent Hansard poll, detailing that just one in ten young people are ‘firmly’ intending to vote in the 2015 general election, is reflective of the alienation that the nation’s youngsters feel from the political scene. Young people are at best cold, at worst hostile in their attitude towards local politics. But what can be done to change this?

First and foremost, it needs to be examined why young people are disengaged from the local political process. At its most basic level, despite being in a technological age, young people suffer from a lack of information about the operation of Croydon Council and details of party membership. Being in the sixth form at a local secondary school, the overwhelming majority of my peers are unaware of the jurisdiction and the functions which local authorities perform, which hence naturally translates into apathy at the ballot box. Even those who are interested in politics do not often know how to even join political parties.

The inability to engage in meaningful discussion alienates the entirety of the electorate

But, perhaps more seriously, young people feel marginalised and under represented by the political process. When the composition of Croydon Council is examined, it seems obvious why these feelings of alienation may ensue. Of course, it is only just that the Council Chamber is dominated by experienced councillors who have served their communities for years. But that isn’t the point.

To engage young people in politics, it is imperative that we feel represented by people who can relate to our lifestyle. Although an undoubtedly positive move, this doesn’t necessarily mean promoting younger council candidates. Instead, to re-engage Croydon’s youth, it is important that the council operations are reformed.

This includes reforming the way council meetings operate. As a member of the public observing the last full council meeting on Monday 27th January, it was distasteful to witness councillors, particularly the Labour group, consistently heckling and interrupting speakers throughout the debates.

While adversarial politics is naturally healthy and contributes to the pluralistic, democratic process, the constant interruptions were extremely disruptive to the progress of the meeting. Indeed, the inability to engage in meaningful discussion alienates the entirety of the electorate, who see the political process as a meaningless point scoring system for the parties elected to the town hall.

Perhaps when younger people know who they are voting for in person, they can become more engaged in the political process

But as for the councillors running the town hall, they themselves must become more visible to the borough’s youth. As well as councillors holding their surgeries in local churches and other community buildings, they should also visit local secondary schools.

Not only would this increase the status of councillors amongst the younger generation, but it would also provide younger people with a platform from which to voice their concerns to elected personnel. This would provide us with more information about the political process, whilst simultaneously bridging together the elected representatives with their younger counterparts. Perhaps when younger people know who they are voting for in person, they can become more engaged in the political process.

Serious action must be undertaken to engage our borough’s youth, and fast. With the impending local elections on May 22nd, their vote could be absolutely crucial in determining which party holds the balance of power.

Ben Flook

Ben Flook

Benjamin is a seventeen year old student at Wilson's School. He has lived in the London Borough of Croydon for the entirety of his life. In particular, Benjamin has an interest in cricket and politics. He is a member and an activist of the Croydon Conservative Federation and aspires to become a Conservative Party politician. Benjamin is a Conservative Party Candidate for the May 2014 Croydon Council elections.

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  • Anne Giles

    Fantastic article and how true.

  • bieneosa

    Whilst I agree that politicians are not engaging effectively with young people, the other side of the coin is that there is a disproportionately low level of young people on the electoral register. Only 43% of people aged 17-19 are on the electoral register. However when you look at those aged 35+ this increases to 80%, then 96% for those aged 65+. Politicians (local and national) seek to prioritise the needs of the demographic profile which holds the balance of power when it comes to elections, and at this moment in time it’s not young people. This is why politicians always take a cautious approach when it comes to OAPs; they are the group which votes the most.

    The question of why young people are not registered to vote needs to be addressed, and whilst I agree with some of the comments that you make in relation to reforming the political system and having politicians that reflect the society they serve, I think there needs to be a two-pronged approach, aimed at politicians and young people.

    We need to look at engaging people at an earlier age in schools, so that they fully understand how the political process works.There also needs to be a clear message that encourages young people to be drivers of change rather than passengers. I question whether citizenship is being taught effectively in schools. It’s a relatively new subject and it has to compete with essential subjects like maths and English.

    Whilst there are not enough young people who are registered to vote and take part in the political process, there are plenty who campaign on issues they are passionate about. They express concern and engage on these selective issues outside of the traditional system. There is an opportunity to marry the traditional and non-traditional, and perhaps technology is the key.

    Bringing it back to Croydon, the juvenile behaviour during Full Council is symptomatic of a wider cultural issue within the political system. I’m not sure why you’ve made a partisan point in relation to the behaviour of councillors, as it’s something that both Labour and Conservatives are guilty of. This type of behaviour alienates many people, not just the young. Furthermore, I do not think the system at the town hall is particularly transparent. Part of the reform needs to include opening up the system so that people feel empowered rather than powerless.

    Ultimately, engagement is a two-way process and there are many steps that need to be taken to engage young people in politics. Trust among politicians has eroded across the board, and this will take time to rebuild. This is not a short-term project, and there are no quick fixes. However, there is nothing stopping politicians in Croydon from starting the process of change by simply listening to the needs of young people.

  • Sean Creighton

    On Tuesday night I attended the showing at the House of Commons of a DVD of interviews with activists and politicians reflecting on how far Britain has come in tackling racism in the last 30 years. Three young people (aged c.9-14) attended with their parents and made thoughtful contributions to the discussion. Indeed the youngest was so articulate that Tory Lord John Taylor suggested that he might be a future black Prime Minister. In my small scale involvements in discussion with pupils at primary and secondary schools and in youth projects over the last 7 years I have been surprised at the knowledge, the thirst to understand, idealism and indeed activism (particularly of the older ones). Like Plato did all those years ago we underestimate the talents, creativity and knowledge of young people; indeed it is far more damaging – we deride them. The fear that has crept into people’s attitudes to groups of young people when they are out in the street acts against dialogue and engagement, and is a loss of memory of adults own experience as young people. If we treat young people with contempt it is no surprise that they will react negatively to adults. We have let young people down through the failure to ensure that school education is about knowledge and understanding for life as citizens not just for jobs, through increasingly seeing them as anti-social and potential criminals, and through the continual erosion of youth provision. I wrote a joint discussion paper in 2006 with Tim Saunders, a Kennington/Vauxhall based youth worker and resident of Croydon, on some of the issues relating to young people, which can be seen at http://www.rcdt.org/youth.asp. When I was at school we held mock elections during the 1964 General Election. Every secondary school Head could encourage their pupils to run a mock election. Where Schools Councils exist pupils are already involved in a form of democratic engagement. This needs to be strengthened. Every school should have one, including primaries, with their own budget to spend through discussion between all pupils. A few years ago I was clerking a primary Governing Body that did introduce a budget. There were many positive effects from this in terms of pupil engagement, improvements in behaviour and experiencing the educative process of balancing different views, making decisions and organising expenditure.