“Like Brand… I would like to live in a fairer, more equal society… However, the aspect of Brands article that I spent most time thinking about is that of voting, apathy and political engagement, particularly in relation to young people” In this article, youth worker Tim Owen looks at the recent debate about young people voting started by comedian Russell Brand’s article in the New Statesman and how the themes raised are reflected in youth work.

It was with great interest that I read Russell Brand’s lead article in the current affairs magazine New Statesman, where he called for a revolution. His disengagement with the current political process is something that I believe will resound with many people, particularly the young. Like Brand, I am disenchanted with the current global system. I would like to live in a fairer, more equal society. I believe that large corporations should take more care for the welfare of their workers, that we should wake up to the realities of the irreparable damage we are inflicting on our world and that all of us have a role to play in improving our communities  (local and global).

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However, the aspect of Brands article that I spent most time thinking about is that of voting, apathy and political engagement, particularly in relation to young people – the issue was also touched on by follow comedian Robert Webb in his open letter response to Brand’s article. After contemplation I decided to write this short piece on Brand and Webb’s views and its impact on youth.

Brand claims not to vote because doing so would ‘seem like a tacit act of compliance’.  I was first able to vote in the 1997 UK general election (when Tony Blair’s Labour Party came to power after 17 years of Conservative government) and as a left-leaning first time voter it was probably a good time for capturing my imagination and enthusiasm for voting. I remember sitting up all night and watching with real excitement as the change of government became a reality. It didn’t feel like an act of compliance then, it felt like I was part of something.

The general response was ‘can’t be bothered’ and ‘what will it do for me’. But Brand asserts that the compliance comes from the fact that all of the main parties are  the same. Webb challenges Brands view by highlighting that New Labour went on to make some real changes when elected, and that the most disadvantaged members of society were major beneficiaries of this. However, current teenagers are too young to remember these times, and looking at the here and now, it is easy to recognise the apathy that Brand identifies.

 

At the last general election I had a conversation with a group of 18 and 19 year olds about images-1whether or not they would vote. I was amazed that only one, out of the ten or so young people present, expressed any interest in voting. The others that said they wouldn’t vote had no real reason for not going and the general response was ‘can’t be bothered’ and ‘what will it do for me’. Interestingly, the individual that was planning to vote launched into an inspiring speech that started with ‘I’ll tell you why you should vote’. In the context of this article, the young person was a Webbite and spent about five minutes highlighting why he intended to vote for the party of his choice and how they differed from the others.  However, I have also heard equally passionate and thoughtful speeches from young people who would be Brandites, and who have outlined clearly why the current political system needed to change.

As youth workers we have a very real part to play in challenging apathy. Brand and Webb both propose solutions that are based on the concept that apathy gets us nowhere. I would say that apathy is very much the default political position of a lot (maybe even the majority) of young people. So as youth workers we have a very real part to play in challenging apathy and encouraging young people to want to engage…but engage in what?

Should we encourage young people to vote? The answer is no, but nor should we encourage them to do the opposite. What we should do is encourage young people (like the examples I’ve given above) to explore and understand the world around them; to help them make decisions about what they believe in; to recognise where their viewpoint sits with other people; and to have the confidence to stand by their convictions. Through this process they can make an informed choice about whether they will or will not vote, and will be able to clearly explain their decision. Then the hope is that they use their knowledge and understanding to want to make their communities, town and cities, countries and maybe even the world a better place to live – using whatever method seems most appropriate to them.

It takes confidence to hand over the agenda to young people.

images-2One challenge for youth workers in this process is to ensure that our attempts at encouraging active participation don’t also result in further emphasising to young people the fact that engagement in such processes is pointless. I, like many other youth workers, have been guilty of this on more than one occasion. All too often participation in the political agenda is ringed fenced; it’s involvement by our rules and on our terms. It takes confidence to hand over the agenda to young people and to trust in their abilities to do something groundbreaking, something amazing. I’m just about to start a new youth action group and I hope the young people who attend will be full of passion and enthusiasm, willing to explore and challenge ideas and perspectives. Let’s also hope that I can stick to my commitment for them to set their own agenda. Russell Brand says it is time for change…maybe it can start with them.


Tim Owen is a youth worker based in West London

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Featured Image Credit: Gallery Hip

Written by Team Youthwork

Team Youthwork

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