6 May 2015

#GE2015: What does ‘youth engagement’ really mean?

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In one of the most talked about stories of the 2015 UK election campaign, the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, visited comedian Russell Brand’s house for an interview and in doing so, persuaded him to encourage the nation to vote and “take decisive action to end the danger of the Conservative party”. Although dismissed as a “joke” by Prime Minister David Cameron, the video has over 1 million views on YouTube and is the most watched video of the general election campaign so far.

With a record-breaking 2,296,530 new registrations since mid-March to vote in the general election on Thursday 7th May, the Electoral Commission were thrilled to announce that 707,171 applications were made by 18-24 year-olds. It’s hoped that this will result in more young people heading to the polling stations tomorrow. In 2010 only 55% of this age group were registered to vote and on Election Day, only 44% of those registered actually voted.

Regardless of my personal view about the man and his politics, Brand is a formidable and influential figure in the eyes of many young people and has nearly 10 million followers on Twitter. His 2013 interview with BBC Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman, in which he famously advocated for people to not vote, (removed and) has been watched over 10,950,000 times on YouTube. Brand proudly defended his decision not to exercise his right to vote “out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now, and which has now reach fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system. So voting for it is tacit complicity with that system”.

However, three days before the 2015 general election, Brand has done a complete U-turn and publicly backed the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, as the only “bloke” in Westminster who will listen to young people. Miliband has enjoyed an unprecedented level of support in the last few weeks, having recently basked in a wave of teenage female fandom with the surprisingly popular #Milifandom campaign. There was even a Buzzfeed article entitled People Are Going Wild For The Raw Sexuality of Ed Miliband that continues to confuse me. Sunday Times columnist A. A. Gill offered a partial explanation, concluding that “the nerdiness isn’t a handicap on a computer. [The internet] is the home of blinky, wonky, impedimented, shy, over-cerebral oddballs”. This surge in support is not to be mistaken for Cleggmania, the brief spike in support the leader of the Liberal Democrats (removed Nick Clegg) enjoyed following his impressive performance in the 2010 TV debate.

Increasing youth engagement in UK politics benefits all and enriches our democracy. Many young voters can identify with Brand far more than the majority of MPs. According to research conducted by YouGov for British Future, those eligible to vote for the first time in the May 2015 general election think politicians don’t understand the issues that matter most to them and have little faith in those who want to run the country. In order to communicate effectively with this audience and to attempt to persuade them of the importance of engaging with the political process, politicians must use the myriad of social media platforms in the same way that young people do. Although parties are very active on social media, they are failing to engage in authentic conversations with the electorate, using it primarily to publish party propaganda. Traditional media drives engagement on social media platforms such as Twitter, however these conversations tend to be restricted to a small circle of young politicos, rather than expanding engagement among other young voters.

Buzzfeed Politics has become one of the success stories of general election with attractive viral content rich with videos, photos, tweets, memes and vines. It has made politics accessible to young people and made a rather unexciting election campaign humorous and engaging. At the LSE Polis 2015 Journalism Conference, Alistair Stewart chaired a panel entitled ‘BBC v Buzzfeed – Which platform will win the election?’ Jim Waterson, Deputy Editor Buzzfeed UK, confidently dealt with tough questions from panellists including Jamie Angus, Editor BBC Today Programme, Lucy Fisher, Political Correspondent of The Times and Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman.

BBC v Buzfeed: Which platform will win the election? Graphic by Silvia Alba.

Waterson held his own and deftly deconstructed the very title of the panel itself, maintaining that rather that comparing BBC and Buzzfeed directly, on quality of journalism for example, we should regard them as separate categories of the growing and dynamic UK media landscape. BBC remains the most visited and trusted site for national news, however Buzzfeed is where young people go for a new take on political reporting. Rather than one traditional article and a corresponding video, Buzzfeed utilises multiple versions of stories across multiple platforms and social media. Buzzfeed is building its investigative and traditional journalism teams, poaching notable contributors from many more traditional news organisation and is boldly staking its claim as part of the UK political journalism landscape.

However other new platforms are less enthusiastic about encouraging young people to take part. The Vice guide How to Survive the UK General Election 2015: A Guide for First-Time Voters advised young voters not to get their hopes up, “thanks to the eternal wisdom of First Past the Post voting system, your vote will probably count for nothing. At the last election, more than half of all votes were for losers. Sorry, but your opinion is – technically – actual garbage”.

3.3 million young people are eligible to vote for the first time in this general election. The latest YouGov poll has Labour and the Conservatives both polling at around 30% of the vote amongst 18-24 year olds, the Greens at 16%. In one of the closest fought elections in recent memory, this could prove a pivotal moment for young people to have their say in shaping the government.

If we fail to convince this demographic of the importance of voting we run a very real risk of losing an entire generation of people disengaged and disillusioned with politics. I will be waiting with bated breath on Thursday, hoping that young people will exercise their right to vote and implore those in Westminster to better understand the lives of young people and acknowledge the very real struggles they face in this country.

Emily Revess is a MSc student at LSE, a Director of Conservative Future Women and a Junior Writer for Brit Politics. She is also Campaign Developer for the Red Light Campaign and UK Ambassador for One Young World.

This article is an exclusive for CapX, and is available for syndication. Please contact editors@capx.co to discuss details.