I regularly engage in fundamentally political conversations with my university friends. I’m sure many will agree, a heated debate at the afters is somewhat unavoidable these days. When are we paying the water bill? Is the strike on tomorrow? And why the hell is a cheeseburger at Maccies now £1.19?
These are all, inherently, political questions. Talking about sex, consent, walking home, whether it’s safe to get the bus, the price of a pint, how much tip you take home from your bar job – this is all politics. Yet, students constitute the least politically engaged demographic in local and national politics.
Why aren’t young people voting? Fallowfield had the lowest turnout across Manchester in last May’s by-election. Only 15.22% of registered constituents voted. Likewise, the turnout at our own SU’s election has been on a steady decline since 2015’s 34.4%, with figures hitting as low as 16% in recent years.
It doesn’t really add up, does it? The oldies think we’re largely a bunch of idealistic lefties. The cabinet thinks we’re “Guardian reading, tofu eating woke-erati’.” All you have to do is head to Instagram stories to see the watered-down activism in its pretty colours and fonts. Yet, there seems to be a significant lack of engagement with formal democracy.
It is rather surprising that’s there little to no large-scale organised calls for refunds on our degrees; ones that have been dominated by online learning and industrial action. On that note, there seems to be rather little political action from students frustrated with the strikes. Genuinely, how many of your friends have channelled their very rightful irritation into writing to the Vice-Chancellor?
But I don’t think it’s our fault. In fact, I don’t think it’s our fault at all. I’m left wondering why so many politicians, academics or journalists aren’t asking why we’re seeing such a vast scale of disillusionment amongst Gen Z students. Whilst some adults might call it apathy, I’d argue it’s the result of orchestrated disenfranchisement.
“Young people are radical, angry, and terrified about their future, but right now, politicians aren’t interested in doing anything, or helping anyone except themselves.”
It’s going under-recognised that this government, with all their ridiculousness, have totally left young people with the sense that there’s no hope to get the personal across in politics. Of course, this owes a lot to the fact we had three PMs last year. Not to mention witnessing our very own health secretary cut about the jungle for a five-figure pay-out. Evidently, there is a deep sentiment amongst young people that British politics is the most terribly delivered joke of the last decade.
But it’s not just the current Conservative government’s actions. The countless stories about sexual violence amongst police officers, trans hate crime is at an all-time high, even the way the Nicola Bulley story has been handled by both police and the press. Oh, and not to mention, the looming potential of the world going up in flames in the next few decades. It’s no surprise that democracy feels like a very detached fruitless process that we have no role in influencing.
Think this is all a bunch of whiny student talk? Mainstream publications like The Guardian are reporting on our very own rent strike, indicating half of all students in England are facing financial difficulties. Although I might have ticked Braverman’s ‘Guardian reading’ box there, recent data points to similar disillusionment (and just for the record Suella, I hate tofu). In 2019, for the first time since the mid-1970s, over half of the British respondents to Global Satisfaction with Democracy Survey were dissatisfied with democracy in the UK.
The Institute for Public Policy Research found that most British participants say they believe elites have more sway over government policy than they do. Thanks to YouGov, I can confirm my hypothesis that young adults are least likely to say democracy serves them well.
It’s evident young people’s engagement with politics might not follow typical democratic conventions. Protest turnout, – recently at a local vigil for Brianna Ghey – online activism and even occupying our own University buildings indicate that Gen Z’s preferred methods of expressing disdain towards the establishment don’t necessarily equate to voting.
But how did we get here? Although these are still valuable and significant forms of political engagement, if we could turn out at the polls at the rate the elderly do, real change could be made. Arguably, the EU referendum could have been pushed over the 50% mark towards Remain if under-25s had matched the turnout of over-65s.
I asked a range of my peers why they feel such a politically charged generation, so deeply impacted in their formative years by Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, don’t seem to engage with local democracy at all.
Anya, a third-year English student, attributes not voting to the fact that she doesn’t see the point. She attests it all seems like a bit of a joke, “I just don’t think our generation take politicians that seriously, and I think we have every right to think that. It’s as if they think we’re sort of stupid.” Adding she would ring her dad before the police if she witnessed a crime.
On a similar note, second-year Jacob answered, “I’ve voted in the two local elections I’ve been old enough to vote in, but I’m not sure I’ll keep voting. I cancelled my Labour membership at the start of this year, and I don’t feel that there’s any party that represents my politics. Young people are radical, angry, and terrified about their future, but right now, politicians aren’t interested in doing anything, or helping anyone except themselves.”
Delving into what specifically makes it hard to vote, third-year Nelly attributes a reluctance to engage with democracy to how difficult government websites are to navigate. “It’s such an effort to change your constituency to your university address, and hard to know where your vote is needed more”. Given the government now no longer accept student cards or railcards as a form of ID when voting, despite still accepting pensioner’s travelcards, it does make you wonder if politicians truly want young people coming out to the polls.
Upon asking how we got here, third-year Joe attributed the disillusionment to a conscious effort via education in Britain to undermine critical thinking. “The problem of political engagement amongst the 18-25s isn’t a coincidence, it’s the clear result of 30+ years worth of policies that place value on memory and maths instead of critical engagement and creative thinking.”
He, likewise, attested Gen Z’s apathy doesn’t come from social media or the age of the internet but from a conscious government effort to undermine solidarity amongst young people. Perhaps best echoed by third-year Tess, who affirms Joe’s argument with her quote, “there’s nothing to be passionate about because everything’s sh*t.”
Evidently, a sense of hope amongst even the most politically charged members of our generation has been massively diluted. But, I’m optimistic it’s not lost completely. It’s up to the Labour party to run an effective election campaign in 2024, with students at the forefront of the conversation, that motivates us to turn out at the polls.
It’s also up to the activists, online movements and political student groups we engage with to emphasise the fundamental importance of voting. And you, to encourage your friends and colleagues to turn out at local elections. Throughout history, students have been a force to be reckoned with, particularly in Manchester. Infographics won’t end 12 years of Tory rule, but I’m optimistic we still can.