Taking back control: Politics and young people
Holyrood talks to a group of young people about votes at 16, social media and the relationship between age and power
From left: Erin Mwembo, Jack Dudgeon, Amy Lee Fraioli, Julia Stachurska. Image credit: David Anderson
It’s 6pm on a Thursday and Julia Stachurska is running through her concerns over UK immigration policy. Starting off slightly hesitantly, her voice grows in confidence, and picks up speed, as she speaks.
“Last year the number of immigrants from the EU in Scotland was 181,000,” she says. “Now that number is up at around 220,000, and the economic contribution that EU nationals make to Scotland is immense – it’s now risen to £4.4 billion. That kind of contribution should get more recognition. A lot of politicians obviously do talk about the benefits of immigration and defend immigrants, but I think it’s an issue they could be more active on, and people should know more about it.”
Julia was born in Poland but moved to Scotland when she was seven. Ten years on, she has taken a break from a tight schedule of prelims – she’s in the middle of History; Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies; and English – to take part in a group discussion with Holyrood on young people’s rights.
“Being from Poland and coming here at a young age, I felt like Scotland had given me an opportunity,” she explains. “Working in politics can allow me to give back to a community that has given me everything, really.”
The relationship between young people and politics seems to form a source of periodic concern for political commentators and policymakers alike; a regular source of angst, to be routinely picked over, as successive generations move from their teenage years to the age when society hands them greater power.
Maybe it’s the pace of change, with rapid advancements in digital technology taking place within what appears to be an increasingly unstable world of politics over the last five or so years. Maybe middle-aged politicians have always worried about what young people are thinking.
Whatever the answer, new research from the Prince’s Trust has provided fresh cause for concern, with the ninth Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index revealing that young people’s happiness and confidence are at their lowest levels since the study was launched.
The results are pretty bleak. The survey, based on responses from 2,194 young people aged 16 to 25, shows that 51 per cent of young people in Scotland believe a lack of self-confidence holds them back.
Almost a third (30 per cent) of young people in Scotland think getting relevant work experience is one of the biggest challenges in pursuing a career, while 49 per cent worry about their finances.
But while young people in Scotland place importance on work experience to help them achieve their potential, over half (53 per cent) think there are not enough jobs available in their local area.
Most worryingly, 32 per cent do not feel in control of their own lives – up from 24 per cent last year – while a staggering 64 per cent say the political climate is making them feel anxious about the future.
When asked, 19 per cent of 16-25 year olds said they do not believe their life will ever amount to anything, no matter how hard they try.
So what can be done to allow young people to take more control over their lives? And how well do politicians – well-meaning as they may be – understand the underlying issues driving these findings?
Amy Lee Fraioli, 19, is chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, a body made up of democratically elected young people aged from 14 to 25, who represent constituencies across Scotland. She told Holyrood that, in the present political climate, more emphasis needs to be given to the rights of children and young people.
She said: “We are running a campaign on rights, to encourage politicians to know more about young people’s rights and to make sure they take a rights-based approach. We think it is lacking slightly – politicians need to be more aware of young people’s rights and aware of how to maintain them, and they need to be aware of their duty to ensure young people know their rights. That is something we feel politicians could scrub up on and get better at.”
Jack Dudgeon, 20, another member of SYP, nods: “Rights is a brilliant focal point because it is so broad and all encompassing – there are so many issues affecting young people which stem off from it.”
The members of the SYP arrive at Holyrood’s office fresh from a victory in their campaign to end use of so-called ‘mosquitos’ – devices which emit a high frequency sound, which generally only young people can hear, with the aim of deterring them from gathering in public spaces.
ScotRail recently faced criticism after installing one in Hamilton Central station. SYP’s campaign leapt into action, with the Children’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, then lending his backing. He said: “International human rights bodies, and my office, have long called for these devices to be banned.
“The use of such devices is a breach of children’s rights to go about their lives free from discrimination in a healthy and safe way when they use public transport, visit shops or meet their friends.
“These devices are a disproportionate and degrading approach that acts without discrimination, causing discomfort to any children and young people who encounter them.”
In the end, ScotRail agreed to ban them.
The devices seem to offer a case study in the way that the rights of children and young people can be thrown aside by middle-aged decision-makers. Rail bosses said they had been installed to reduce violence, yet the idea they would introduce an alarm aimed at making life uncomfortable, or even painful, for people aged 25-plus seems inconceivable.
Jack says: “There are a lot of politicians who aren’t aware of them – I don’t know if that’s because they can’t actually hear them or because no young people have brought them to their attention. But SYP has put a lot of pressure on decision-makers to do something about them.”
Generally the most straightforward way to directly influence policymakers is through the threat of voting them out. Yet, for UK general elections, as well as the EU referendum – a vote that will arguably affect young people far more than any other age group – 16 and 17-year-olds are still excluded from the franchise.
Erin Mwembo, 16, is a fifth-year student, also in the middle of her prelims, arriving to speak to Holyrood straight after her Modern Studies exam. She had heard her family talking about politics and, keen to learn more, started watching YouTube videos of Scottish political debate during the 2015 general election campaign. “I just wanted to know what was going on,” she explains.
But Erin has no doubt that 16-year-olds should be able to vote. “You’re an adult at 16, so you should be able to vote at 16, it’s as simple as that. But also, it’s about having the same rights as every other citizen – for example, I think everyone should be entitled to the Living Wage at 16. There shouldn’t be some sort of hierarchy based on age – everyone should be treated equally.”
For a politicised 16-year-old, it must be hard to watch middle-aged politicians announce that you are incapable of using the vote responsibly.
“It’s frustrating because I find the counter-argument is ‘they’re not mature enough’, but everyone’s experience is different,” she says. “You could be 24 and be the most sheltered person ever, or you could be 16 and not. But it’s about deciding how you want your country to be – and everyone should have a say in that.”
Jack agrees: “Their argument is that young people don’t have enough life experience, but I’ve never found that argument convincing, because there are some 16-year-olds out there who have more life experience than some 80-year-olds.”
Jack: “It really annoys me when I hear people say ‘young people don’t care about politics, they’re not engaged or they’re lazy or apathetic’. It’s often used as an argument against votes at 16, but I think it’s completely untrue. Even people who aren’t involved in politics day-to-day, they do still care about issues that affect them. In the 2017 general election some sources were putting the youth turnout as high as 72 per cent, so the idea young people aren’t engaged in politics is absolutely ridiculous.”
Yet few of Julia’s friends share her passion for politics.
She told Holyrood: “It’s the complete opposite within my friend group. None of my friends care about politics, and I’m there telling them to get into it, read about it, but they don’t want to listen. But working in the local community – in schools, unis, colleges – it’s important to encourage more young people into politics, because it’s there all around them, and the decisions will be with them for the rest of their lives. If they don’t know how to vote in an election, or the basics of a political party, then that’s an issue, because they are voting for their future in the end.”
Like the others, Amy Lee also strongly rejects the idea that over-18s have some sort of monopoly on wisdom: “My mum comes to me at an election and asks me, ‘who do I vote for? What does this party do?’”
Julia laughs: “My mum’s the same with me.”
Amy Lee says: “My mum has had the right to vote for 20-odd years, but when I was 16 I was telling her how to vote, so why do we not have the right to vote yet? When it was granted in Scotland I was so happy, but much more needs to be done for it to be pushed at a UK level. It makes you feel like you don’t matter, like your voice doesn’t matter.”
She continues: “It would have been good to see the debate in the House of Commons from a couple of months ago go further. Watching the opposition side, the argument was that young people don’t have enough experience, or they’re not engaged enough. But then that same weekend we had the UK youth parliament in the Commons – some of the SYP went down as representatives of Scotland – and the standard of debate from the 16 and 17-year-olds was ten times what the standard of debate in the actual parliament had been, and it was literally the day after we had seen politicians saying, ‘young people can’t do this’. We proved them wrong that weekend, but it was actually upsetting to watch that debate.”
Meanwhile their experiences of dealing with politicians seem to be mixed. Amy Lee, Jack, Julia and Erin all use social media as a means of staying in touch with what their MSPs and MPs are up to, and they all clearly appreciate those who use platforms like Twitter to help communicate.
Jack uses Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. “I kind of refuse to conform to Instagram but I suspect I am part of a minority there,” he laughs. “But I agree, Twitter is the way I build up relationships with MSPs. It’s so useful, because if I want to know what they have been doing in parliament that day, you can find it at the click of a button.”
Amy Lee adds: “Actually, a lot of politicians are starting to pick up on Snapchat. Politicians on Snapchat is quite funny to see – I remember when I was at school you would get given a ‘diary of an MSP’ but with Snapchat, it shows you their whole day. You can actually see them doing it, so it’s really engaging.”
Parties’ communications strategies have come under increased focus recently, particularly in the wake of the 2017 general election, in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was credited with scoring a decisive victory over the less tech-savvy Conservatives in using social media to reach out to young voters.
And so the Tories are attempting to up their social media game in an effort to win over youth votes. But how important is social media in influencing young people? For the young people featured, it is policy, not platform, that’s likely to have the greatest impact on how they vote.
Jack says: “Obviously the communication method is important – so that young people can see what each party is offering – but at the end of the day, it is the policy which matters. It’s policy which convinces people.”
Erin uses Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, but has doubts how big an influence different parties’ use of social media has on their electoral performance.
“It’s a factor, but I don’t think it’s the main factor. We have brains, and there are obviously multiple factors in voting behaviour.”
Meanwhile concern over young people being underestimated, even patronised, by politicians, policymakers and the media is a concern for everyone present.
Erin says: “I have met politicians and been patronised. I feel like there aren’t nearly as many young women in politics as there are young men, and so they instantly want to know that you’re OK, that they’re not going to challenge you, and that you’re OK there. We aren’t challenged enough, and that’s an issue.”
She adds: “We don’t get respected because of the way society views young people. When I tell people I am going to get involved in politics at the weekend, they’re like, ‘why aren’t you going out drinking and acting like a hooligan?’ But that’s not me. I don’t want everyone to expect that of me. Inside I am a middle-aged woman, that’s just the way I am.”
Amy Lee says: “Young people want to be involved in politics. We are happy to reach out and try and make things better, not just for young people, but for everyone, because we understand we are the adults of tomorrow. I think sometimes politicians can have an attitude that young people don’t care, or that we won’t want to talk about politics, but we do.”
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