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Don’t Patronise Young People – Speak to Them About the Issues

By now I’m sure you’re all aware about the misguided efforts from the Remain and Leave campaigns to capture the youth vote. That 18-35 year-olds typically don’t turn out in high numbers at the ballot box is no surprise, but this time there has been a concerted effort to get young people registered to vote… But it’s not gone very well.


The remain campaign launched their online PR push which urged young voters to get ‘votin’ while mentioning young person friendly activities such as chillin’, meetin’, tourin’, workin’, earnin’, and makin’. Seemingly the Remain group overlooked condescendin’…

Young people flocked to Twitter to post their reaction to the online campaign and it wasn’t received too well.


It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Leave campaign either. They have planned Bpop Live – a pro-Brexit Festival – for 19 June, just four days before the EU referendum. The line-up includes such finger-on-the-pulse musicians such as 1981 Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz and an Elvis Impersonator. The irony of having former Eurovision winners appearing at an anti-EU festival is not lost on anyone. Similar online ridicule followed.


Both of these attempts at attracting a younger audience make me question whether young people were consulted during this process at all. Would 18-25 year-olds wish to be stereotyped as slang using, raving, phone-swiping graffiti artists who only attend music festivals? I’m not so sure.

In the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, 16-17 year-olds were given the opportunity to have their say as to whether Scotland remained part of the United Kingdom, and 80% of the eligible demographic registered to vote. On the back of the Scottish referendum, almost a quarter of young people joined a political party while two thirds have been inspired to find out more about politics.  The fact that 16-17 year-olds are being denied the chance to vote in this referendum then starts to look very strange indeed.

In fact, the British Youth Council and Votes at 16 Coalition state that the views of 1.5 million 16-17 year-olds are being overlooked, this despite research indicating that 16-17 year-olds are more likely to turn out to vote than 18-24 year-olds because they lead a more stable life. Over the last decade or so, mainstream politicians have discussed various ways of engaging with young people who are perhaps disengaged or disillusioned with current politics.

Back in May it was suggested that young peoples’ votes may just “win the keys to Downing Steret” and  this time young people have been identified as being heralded as holding a lot of sway in the EU referendum on 23 June.

The research suggests that younger voters are more inclined to vote to remain but Britain Stronger In Europe has recruited the likes of Eddie Izzard and June Sarpong to inspire the youth of today to head to the polling stations. While both very talented, these celebs just aren’t relevant to today’s young people and the message won’t resonate as intended. More current celebrities such as Ellie Goulding and Stormzy are making increasingly political comments through social media, though neither are attached the leave or remain campaigns.

Another issue is that the EU referendum debate is meant to be about facts yet has turned into a popularity contest with no viable information presented from either side. Young people – and everyone, really – are confused by both sides twisting the same figures to suit their arguments.

This brings us to a bigger issue. Parts of the political establishment have ignored young people’s views for too long, leaving them dispirited and distanced from the political process. If politicising young people was an important issue then it would be mandatory in schools and it would be supported by more voluntary and third sector organisations. If mainstream political parties cared about young people then tuition fees wouldn’t have gone up astronomically, cuts to youth housing benefits would not have been made, and the minimum wage increases would also apply to under-25s. It seems that in recent years young people have had it worse than anyone and yet we’re now expecting them to take action? Yes, this is the most important decision in a generation. Yes, young people are going to be the most affected by any decision. And yes, a lot of politicians still don’t know how to engage with young people.

Under 25s have known nothing other than life in the EU and there is the argument that they take EU membership for granted, hence their propensity to vote remain, but when alternatives aren’t proposed and public figureheads are talking non-stop about the economy and business that could put a lot of young people off the debate entirely. From our experience, the best way to engage young people in politics is to speak to them directly. Political jargon is unlikely to change, but as long as you can explain what the terms mean and provide real life examples of how things could affect them then young people are more than capable of being involved in the debate.

Youth Focus: North East, through the My Manifesto project, has spent the last year delivering political education and awareness sessions to groups of young people from areas of deprivation. Working with a steering group of under-25s, My Manifesto developed a jargon-busting guide to the five main party manifestos for the General Election in 2015 and this year we have set our sights on the EU Referendum. The MyReferendum online opinion poll allows young people to log-in using Facebook to have their say on the EU referendum.

We spent an afternoon talking to young people in Gateshead about their views on the EU referendum and what they thought of the campaigns. There was a mixed response with many young people confused by the statistics that were being used and many commented that a focus on business and the economy didn’t resonate with them and they wanted to know how it would affect their lives.

There is a real danger that the views of young people, especially in the North East, are being overlooked. We want to give our region’s youth a voice. If you are 16-25, visit the MyReferendum page, log-in, and have your say in our opinion poll and let your voices be heard.

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