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From fascination to disillusion and back again: What young people think about politics

I’m just a few months away from my first chance to vote. But instead of great anticipation all I feel is hopelessness

Image: The New European

I have just watched Liz Truss resign 44 days into her premiership after setting fire to the economy, with Rishi Sunak waltzing into Downing Street without even a leadership contest, let alone a general election. The next election will bring with it my first chance to vote, but I just can’t feel any enthusiasm for the time when I walk into a voting booth and make my first proper contribution to democracy. And that this failure of a government may still be ruling us until December 2024 horrifies me. 

It’s such a disappointment to find myself in this position. I’ve always been fascinated by the world of politics, but my interest has turned into disgust the more I learn. Many of my friends are completely disillusioned and no longer even try to keep up with events, let alone plan to vote. This is what worries me: if we ‘normal’ young people don’t bother to vote, the future of Britain will be bleak. Our apathy will be exploited for the ‘greater bad,’ as it was with Brexit.

I was 11 during the referendum, and the cartoonish, single-name characters – Boris, Nigel and Trump – captured my interest. In the school playground, we would sing about building a wall on the US-Mexican border to a tune from Frozen and try to work out what a “hung parliament” was. 

Others soon tired of this. Not me. I was the first in my class to know about Theresa May’s resignation, Boris Johnson’s election and his plethora of scandals and embarrassments. I found it all very funny and colourful – videos of the prime minister tackling children to the ground while playing rugby, getting stuck on a zipwire and making silly speeches like a children’s entertainer. 

But then came the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn. Johnson wasn’t funny any more as thousands died because of his bad decisions. My school was closed for longer than necessary because the government didn’t calm the virus in time. Our education was interrupted and our mental health affected, all while he held illegal drinks parties in Downing Street with no care for what was happening to us all. In my ignorance, I had thought politicians were chosen for talent and competence – oh how wrong I was.

Last summer, I worked with Katherine Harake, a brilliant New Hampshire candidate for this month’s midterms in the US. I helped her fundraise, develop strategies and campaign in the community, and was filled with renewed enthusiasm for politics. But I was also troubled by what I saw. Why couldn’t she campaign openly on climate change, which for us young people is the number one problem in the world? Top climate scientists say we are “firmly on track toward an unlivable world” unless all countries make big changes, yet Americans were put off by the idea of trying to prevent this.

Also worrying was the reason that Harake and a group of Democrats were desperately campaigning for seats on New Hampshire’s Executive Council. For decades, this body had been overlooked simply as a place for rubber-stamping budget decisions. But when Republicans took four of the five seats last time, they discovered they could be the most powerful people in the state after the governor by voting to reject Covid funding and defund planned parenthood programmes for ideological reasons.  A lack of attention from regular people had allowed a body founded by King Charles II in order to meddle with colonial politics to continue to do so even though the ex-colony now leads the ‘free world.’ What other damage is possible out there because we take so much for granted? 

I have noticed since my return that here in the UK politicians increasingly reference US politics. But even as a mere A-level history student, I can see they don’t really understand it. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget was likened to Reaganomics, but without the power of the dollar – a vital difference that doomed their plans, as their obsession with cutting taxes made them forget about what drives the economy: confidence. Reaganomics is part of my history course, and that much was clear to me. With their PPE and history degrees, how did they not know? 

I am also bemused that politicians born long after the second world war get votes by speaking as if they fought on the front lines or twisting facts from the aftermath. Daniel Kawczynski, the MP for Shrewsbury, once ranted that Britain had received no money from the Marshall Plan – under which the US gave $12 billion to help rebuild Europe – even though Britain received more than any other country: $2.7 billion. What’s most grating is that none of the backlash or the public embarrassment mattered: he remains in parliament, and can lie again. History’s lessons remain ignored.

The fact that politicians make claims that any sixth form student could disprove discredits the political system even more. Even worse, by making policy based on those claims, they have created an economic crisis that could stop us from getting the education to see through them. According to a survey by the Prince’s Trust, nearly half of 16- to 25-year-olds in Britain worry they won’t be able to afford food or other essentials this winter, with more than a third considering leaving education to go into work or training. We are the most impacted age group by inflation: there is a triple lock on pensions, but no rise in student maintenance loans. Politicians don’t care about us, so why should we care about them?

Teachers had taught us repeatedly that people who work hard, prepare well and have good judgement get to the top. Seeing these morons in charge of the country has shocked me and my friends. Why bother trying in a system that rewards people like that?

Our disillusion has consequences. Onward, the moderate Conservative think tank, recently found 25% net support among 25-34-year-olds for an authoritarian strongman. Support was one in five among the 18-24s, the age band I will soon be joining. These numbers, unprecedented in recent history, show a rising trend in which people progressively dismiss the established idea of democracy as the best, or at least, least worst, form of government. I am worried for a future in which people don’t trust the democratic system because how else can we make change, without violence?

As someone who grew up in the information age, I agree with Penny Mordaunt when she suggests that “this report is right to point to the links between social connectivity and political opportunity.” With the Internet, you can make friends with so many people with the exact same politics that it becomes harder to coexist with those who disagree. This has led to increased radicalisation, and a worshipping of caricature politicians. That’s how Trump accumulated a cult following, with videos on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter of him ‘telling it like it is,’ and acting silly in front of a camera, rather than for his actual political beliefs.

I am guilty of this. As I began to understand politics, I idolised Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (the Labour equivalents, “Magic Grandpa” Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, weren’t as exciting). I used social media to bait Republicans until I realised I was behaving like a Trump supporter, just from the other end of the spectrum. With this unholy mixing of stan culture and political radicalism, It’s hard to remain optimistic.

I just don’t see how I can change anything. In the next election I will be voting for the first time in a safe Conservative seat where it will probably make no difference what I decide. Why bother trying to choose between Greens, Liberal Democrats or Labour if none will ever win here, and tactical alliances between them are shunned? Why participate in a system that can’t let us win?

After my experience in New Hampshire, where I saw Harake slowly develop a message that even Republicans liked, I saw the importance of getting involved. If we give up on politics because we don’t believe it won’t help, we are letting out-of-touch old people decide against our interests.

But it’s hard to keep the faith. Instead, we turn to protest. Those young people from Just Stop Oil throwing tomato soup onto works of art and glueing themselves to the pavement are understandably desperate. So are the teenagers demonstrating in Iran and so are young Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli troops. That’s why young people get so angry and take extreme positions when you dismiss our concerns and issues as “woke”.

Last year, the World Economic Forum identified growing youth disillusionment as a risk to society, warning in a report that the young generation’s “disengagement and lack of confidence and/or loss of trust with existing economic, political, and social structures at a global scale” meant “hard-fought societal wins could be obliterated” if not addressed properly. It described my generation — 15-24-year-olds — as “Youth in an Age of Lost Opportunity”. What it said just doesn’t surprise me at all. Ask my friends about politics, and you will hear them dismiss democracy and peaceful activism as “useless”.

 If you won’t listen to our words we have no choice but to fight back and cause disruption.

When politicians are destroying our future and ignoring our protests, what else can we do?

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