Politics is losing people, especially young people – what do we do about it?

Generational Trends Politics BSAIt is no surprise, but it still makes grim reading. According to today’s release of the British Social Attitudes survey, most young people are no longer interested in politics. The survey shows that we are not just losing an entire generation to politics. People of all ages are becoming less engaged with the political process.

We face future prospect of governments being elected on turnouts of well below 50%. As disinterest in party politics grows, we must ask whether our political structures, especially political parties, will still be relevant in the decades to come.

First, let’s have a quick look at the statistics.

Among 18-24 year olds, fewer than half voted in the 2010 general election. Again, less than half thinks its everyone’s duty to vote. Barely a third of this group has much interest in politics. Twice that number identify with a political party – in the sense of “I’m a Tory”.

Compare these statistics to those of people 65 years or older. More than two-thirds voted in 2010 and three-quarters identify with a political party.

This is not just a question of one generation being more interested in politics than those that came after it. A detailed look at the data shows three effects. Firstly, people across all age groups have become less politically aligned – again in the sense of “I’m a Tory” – and less interested in politics in recent years (this is the period effect). Secondly, people born in the 1960s are more likely to have lost their political allegiances as they grew older than those born in the 1930s (the lifecycle effect). Finally, each new generation is less likely to be politically engaged than its predecessor (the generation effect).

These three effects together tell us that people of all age groups have become less interested in politics and political participation, and this trend is accelerating. We notice this most among younger people who have become much less partisan and less interested in politics than their elders over the last 20 years. They are less likely to turn out to vote or believe that people have a civic duty to vote. But it would be a mistake to think that political disengagement is phenomenon confined to younger people. Older people too are becoming less engaged.

Being less partisan challenges the bigger political parties much more than the Lib Dems, who have always benefited from floating voters. But the growing disinterest in politics challenges all parties. And unwillingness of younger people to turn out to vote threatens the basis of our democracy.

So what do we do about it?

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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50 Comments

  • One of the major differences affecting young(er) people compared to older people is time and money. The squeeze on living standards is widely felt but is especially acute for young(er) people.

    There are a shortage of good jobs, rental housing is expensive and insecure, and this places a high level of stress on people.

    If we compare the situation of a retired person with a jobseeker;
    a retired person receives an income from the state that meets living costs. This is a secure income not subject to conditionality or hoop-jumping. They can also spend their time as they wish, without requirements to attend here and there on pain of losing their living. Some have more and some have less income, but the pension ensures they all have enough.
    The situation for a jobseeker is very different. Their income is not secure, and can be removed for a wide variety of reasons: living arrangements, time limits, what they have in their pockets, attending specific places at specific times and proving they have carried out prescribed activities, etc. They do not have enough income to meet living costs, so are also managing the multiple impacts of poverty and deprivation – as well as facing the costs (financial and time) that jobhunting incurs.

    Younger people need to build a life and a future for themselves and their (future) family – secure a house, buy furniture and household items, clothes, socialise too, etc . So many work long hours in demanding and tiring jobs, and are paid less than seniors.

    This doesn’t leave much space in which to engage with the relative luxury of politics.

  • lloyd harris 10th Sep '13 - 12:49pm

    I don’t think living cost or the current economy is the cause, this effect has been in place for a long time, longer than the economic mess we are in now.

    It is down to social attitudes – the cause of people becoming more disinterested in society and more interested in self. The causes are complex but I think can be traced back to Thatcher’s market reforms – changes in marketing – cheap credit etc.

  • nuclear cockroach 10th Sep '13 - 1:00pm

    I think a lot of it is down to better education. In the past, people could be convinced that Party A or Person B had all the answers. After a century of democratic politics in the UK, people have learned that the the economy is affected by factors beyond the control of our national politics. So, naturally, a lot of people ask themselves why they should bother.

    Successful political parties must acknowledge that they cannot control many things, and thus limit their promises to those that they could actually achieve should they be elected into government, yet that limited prospectus must remain one powerful enough in its appeal that people are actually prepared to go the ballot box to support it.

  • Peter Hayes 10th Sep '13 - 1:16pm

    I suspect young people, if they get involved, are more likely to support single issue campaigns rather than parties. MPs are in part to blame as there are high profile cases, duck houses etc, that lower them in people’s views. I also fear we are going to loose a lot of young voters, I saw many of them when telling, because we have done so little to explain what we could actually achieve over university fees.

  • nuclear cockroach 10th Sep '13 - 1:16pm

    If we left the EU, NATO, the WTO, the UN and all other international bodies that we participate in, we still would have no control over most of the factors affecting our economy. In fact we would have even less control, by giving up the right of our governments to negotiate on our behalf. The only way you could have a pure national economy in which our government had full control would be by closing the frontiers and giving up on international trade: we might starve, but at least we couldn’t blame anyone else.

  • Richard Dean 10th Sep '13 - 1:22pm

    Disengagement suggests that people think it doesn’t matter.
    Which is a reasonable assumption if all parties provide similar policies.
    But is nit good if i’s because people feel that their opinion won’t be listened to

    Disengagement suggests that people don’t feel too dissatisfied.
    Which means that politicians are actually doing good things!
    But not if the feeling is caused by numbness from too much pain.

    Disengagement suggests that people don’t understand
    Which is not surprising since issues like banks, the economy, the EU, even HS2 are not simple at all
    But which is not good because leaving decisions to “experts” means the decisions will likely favour “experts” interests

  • I can tell you what turns me off politics and why I choose to ignore great swathes of it. And that is that almost everything you hear in the media is cynical and negative. Politics is fundamentally depressing so why would anyone want to expose themselves to that? I know a little better than most people as I’ve looked beneath the surface and know there are many hard working politicians with a positive vision. But if my experience of politics was, as I’ve just seen on TV now, Ed Miliband waving his hands around and saying the other lot only care about the rich (and equivalent propaganda from other parties) I would more than likely switch off entirely.

  • David Allen 10th Sep '13 - 1:26pm

    The problem is that what wins in politics is the diametric opposite of what attracts people into politics.

    What wins is the Lynton Crosby approach – Relentless attack on the enemy. Everything you do must be subordinated to the need to blame the enemy for whatever has gone wrong. Logical argument is not very important. What matters is self-confident, vehement repetition that the enemy is at fault.

    George W Bush showed the way with his campaign to link Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaida. He had no evidence whatsoever, but he simply took care never to mention either without repeating the lie that Saddam supported Al-Qaida. A majority of the US population now believe that.

    A generation ago, politics was about ideals. What linked diverse organisations like CND, Young Liberals, SDP and even New Labour was an appeal to hope, to positive aims. That’s what brings people in. Not just slagging off the opposition you need to beat and slugging your way to the top of the rat pack.

  • nuclear cockroach 10th Sep '13 - 2:01pm

    You were positing that leaving the EU would restore British control over its economy. It wouldn’t. As for Switzerland, it transposes each European single market regulation into its own national law – just as we do – but it has zero influence on any of them.

    Now would you please drop your desperate attempts to turn every conversation on LDV on to your personal hobby horse, the EU? There are plenty of articles posted here on the EU where you thoughts would not be off-topic. Yesterday your off-topic posts on Sarah Teather and (her tenuous connection with) the EU were swiftly excised; I wouldn’t like to bet that the editors will view your posts today as much more relevant to the topic under discussion.

  • David Allen 10th Sep '13 - 2:02pm

    Following my previous post – Let’s look at Syria. After the vote in parliament, what was Cameron and Clegg’s main focus? To rescue their original plans? To do something else for the sake of the Syrian people? Not a bit of it. It was to paint what had happened as a “Millishambles”. It was to declare that any future government failure on Syria was irreversibly to be blamed on Labour.

    Total rubbish – whatever you make of what Labour did. But politically important. Dreadful things were appearing in the Press. People were praising Ed Miliband. That had to be squashed. Never mind if it took government’s attention away from the threat of carnage amongst dark-skinned people far away.

    “Millishambles”? Yes, that’s what LDV called it in an article.

    We are the nasty party now.

  • Richard Dean 10th Sep '13 - 2:22pm

    My impression is that many young people are in favour of the EU.

  • It comes down to the rise of a professional political class all saying the same thing and all taking their vote for granted.. We have elected fiscal rulers rather than representatives and a political system that sees the electorate as a hurdle to overcome. It will all end in tears eventually. It always does.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Sep '13 - 3:02pm

    CP

    One of the major differences affecting young(er) people compared to older people is time and money. The squeeze on living standards is widely felt but is especially acute for young(er) people.

    Younger people need to build a life and a future for themselves and their (future) family – secure a house, buy furniture and household items, clothes, socialise too, etc . So many work long hours in demanding and tiring jobs, and are paid less than seniors.

    Er, yes? So young people have no time left to socialise, enjoy entertainment, etc?

    When I was young, all you mention was reasons FOR me getting involved in politics. I felt life was unfair, particularly for people like me coming from a background without wealth or privilege, and I wanted to get involved in political campaigning to build a fairer society and to kick out the defenders of wealth and privilege who were the barriers to this i.e. the Tories.

    What seems to have happened is that the people who MOST need democratic politics to challenge the power of those who have control through wealth and privilege have been persuaded that politics is not for the likes of them. The sustained attack on democracy coming from the political right has been very successful. What is left of the democratic structures we have is controlled by them, and because they have successfully persuaded everyone that politics is bad, they have managed to push the idea that the less political control of things the better, so instead control is put into the hands of big business i.e. them again.

  • David Allen 10th Sep '13 - 4:26pm

    Matthew Huntbach, CP,

    I think you both have valid points, and they highlight the changes that have happened over the last generation. When Matthew and I were young, politics was led by hope, and it made sense to get involved and seek change. Nowadays politics is led by fear, and the unemployed young have to look out for themselves as individuals rather than join a movement.

    The Crosbyisation of politics, as I describe above, is part of that adverse change. It drives the hopeful, the idealistic, the forward-looking out of politics. It does not drive away the careerists, who see politics as a lucrative professional opportunity alongside lobbying and business interests, and who swell the ranks of the Conservative Party. And the Lib Dems too, these days.

    You see it also in the style of political argument. The time was when the greatest ability in political writing or speechmaking was eloquence – the ability to take a sound argument or a good cause and to clarify, enthuse and inspire. Nowadays it too often seems the greatest ability is deemed to be sophistry – the ability to obfuscate the truth in order to denigrate the enemy.

    All things must pass. All social trends to the extremes eventually go into reverse when the backlash strikes. The public is halfway to seeing what the problem is with politics – it hates what is there now. What it hasn’t yet managed to do is find something better. That is our challenge.

  • (It’s pointless engaging with John Roffey. His answer is “leave the EU” before he knows the question.)

    The top issues affecting young people are jobs and housing.

    Job is clearly tied into our commitment to a stronger economy. For young people the emphasis needs to be on creating apprenticeships and bringing financial stability in an increasingly unstable labour market. We might also ask whether we are creating meaningful, fulfilling jobs, that our time at work feels productive and for a purpose, and that entry-level positions are never the height of anyone’s aspirations – ensure that the higher tiers of Maslows hierarchy are fulfilled for all so that we are empowering everyone to make the most of their lives.

    Housing needs to be fixed to create both a strong economy and a fair society. Specifically we’re talking about its cost. Treating rises in house prices as good news is alienating to the young who YouGov have shown would rather prices fell. Treating new homes as a threat rather than an opportunity is to put the interests of older established communities ahead of the needs of the young. Stating that schemes such as Help To Sell will help young people buy their first home when it doesn’t is alienating. Failure to prioritise improvements to the appalling standards of the private rented sector where the young increasingly live makes is failure for politicians to responds to the needs of Generation Rent.

    Look at how youth unemployment has bulged and house prices have rocketed. Young people have been failed. Macmillan, who built 300,000 homes per year, could tell young people they’ve never had it so good, because it was true. Young people would laugh if Cameron or Clegg attempted to tell them that now.

  • I also think this has a grave impact on fighting spirit for young people in the UK. The less involved young people are and the more involved the ‘elders’ the less likely yp voices will be heard and that will be reflected in both policy and concerns.

    YP have a whole host of concerns that if we do not touch on can also only weaken the possibility of less political engagement so it is rather a spiral of disinterest from this point on! – We cannot re-engage them by offering up chances (on what’s currently hot) but by dishing up questions that we are aware will engage them as I’m sure that would prove interesting to many of the upper ladders.

    Not mentioning the fact that you will probably find out that YP have very different views to the current elite and political class!

  • Andy Boddington 10th Sep '13 - 4:53pm

    @John Roffey
    I know of no evidence that membership of the EU is putting younger people off politics. Indeed, surveys consistently show that younger people are less sceptical of the EU than older people. For a reasonable summary of the data, see this post:
    http://nottspolitics.org/2013/02/12/not-everyone-is-anti-eu-young-people-and-the-eurosceptic-vote/

    I am not convinced it is the squeeze in living standards either @CP. I don’t think engagement in politics is about time, it’s about attitude.

    Recently I delivered leaflets to a block of flats where the tenants are all young people, mostly working, mostly broke. Almost every door was emblazoned with stickers about causes – anti-nuclear, save the whale, dog’s trust and similar.
    But not one of these youngsters voted at the last election. I knocked on every door then and spoke to around half of them. If I had been crusading to save the planet from climate change I would have got a warm welcome. But politics, party politics, turned them off.

    We need a new approach to bring younger people into politics. Maybe that means reinventing politics. To do that, we need to create space for younger people to debate and engage in politics. Their sort of politics, not those of older generations.

  • I think young people are trapped in a vicious political spiral. They don’t vote, therefore their priorities aren’t pushed up the list when it comes to spending. The best example was the last general election. They said they were going to vote Lib Dem but how many actually did? The result was a massive disappointment in terms of numbers of Lib Dem MPs and a much reduced negotiating power when it came to policies like tuition fees.

    This, plus the grossly distorted voting system we have means that parties supported more by young people are all but excluded from the political scene (like the Greens) or severely reduced in terms of the power they can wield like the Liberal Democrats were by the 2010 result.

    Young people are used to massive choice in so many areas of their life and when they see their political choice reduced to two, stale, negative parties like Tories and Labour, it’s obvious why they are going to be turned off by UK politics.

  • Probably my formative political experience, as a child, was watching the UK go into Iraq. Probably the last really big, emotive political event I can remember which directly addressed young people was when a certain political party broke a promise it had made about tuition fees. I can’t speak for any other young people, but I’d have thought it’s fairly clear why to me politics looks like an exclusive arena in which the middle-aged do evil things for their own benefit.

  • David Allen 10th Sep '13 - 6:05pm

    Andy Boddington,

    Yes – dead right – many people still want to engage with the politics of hope.

    However, Crosbyised party politics has no real place for that.

    Further, “to create space for younger people to debate and engage in politics” will not change things, if those people do not believe their little sanctioned forum for debate will actually influence action. In a Crosbyised party, it won’t. Policy will be dictated from the top, and will be decided in terms of whatever best shafts the political enemy.

    Thus for example, Osborne didn’t talk extreme bloodcurdling austerity because he really believed it was wholly necessary. He did it to amplify his blame for Labour.

    Before we can win young idealists back, we have to walk a better walk, not just talk a better talk.

  • None of the contributiors here face up to the real, simple, staring-us-in-the-face reason for the big politics turn-off amongst the electorate. And that is (in my opinion) that politicians tell voters — pre-election — about what they will do once in office, and their deeply-held principles, and then when in office they do the very opposite. Politicians from all Parties have gained a reputation for being unprincipled and “duplicitous” — or worse. I have followed politics for five decades and, make no mistake, British politicians in past times were no saints, but the behaviour of politicians has in recent times led directly to voter cynicism. And of all people the LibDems must be aware of this. The about-turns and somersaults performed by the LibDem leadership after the 2010 general election were the like of which I had never seen before. I repeat, voter apathy is the fault of ALL political parties; a large minority of voters are left feeling ‘what’s the point?’ and don’t bother to vote. [I happen to believe that the reasons for voter apathy are not: the EU, lack of time, the need to earn a living, that voters are more selfish than in the past, that people are not civic-minded, that times are hard……..etc.]

  • The parties don’t have policies that flow from clear philosophies. There is a great deal of overlap between the views of members and candidates of different parties. There is not much point working to build up support for a party when, at the next election or the next election but one, there is a high chance that the candidate of an opposing party will be closer to one’s beliefs than the candidate of the party you have been working for.

    In terms of the Lib Dems specifically and philosophy relating to young people: You can tell young people that they have to pay for their own education, because the rest of the world doesn’t owe them anything, you can tell them that when they work (at least in terms of rhetoric) that “fairer” will be defined as equality of outcomes regardless of inputs and they have a duty to support the rest of society and those older than them, but if you can tell them both of those things at once then you don’t have a philosophy about the relationship of the individual to society that they can understand, judge and get behind if they like it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Sep '13 - 10:33pm

    DAVEN

    None of the contributors here face up to the real, simple, staring-us-in-the-face reason for the big politics turn-off amongst the electorate. And that is (in my opinion) that politicians tell voters — pre-election — about what they will do once in office, and their deeply-held principles, and then when in office they do the very opposite.

    Do they? Or is this a line that is always being pushed by the enemies of democracy? The alternative to democratic politics is, as I have said, rule by businessmen – and as democratic politics dwindles that is where we are moving to. Are businessmen any less duplicitous than politicians? Do big business live up to the promises made in their advertising? Are big businessmen there to give service to the people, or are they in it for themselves? Do big businessmen have perfect private lives the way politicians are supposed to, and are hounded out of office if they do not? Or is it just that the enemies of the democracy have a vested interest in pointing out the faults of politicians while ignoring those of the people who are taking their place as the powers in this land?

    It seems to me the Tories in government are doing much as they promised, as did Labour in government last time. In what way are the Tories doing the opposite of what they promised? You claim they are, so you answer that.

    As for the LibDems, as I keep saying, they didn’t win the election. They won 57 out of the 650 MPs. So how do you expect them to be able to implement all their policies, which seems to be what you are complaining about? If they were somehow to manage to persuade the 305 Conservatives MPs to drop all their Conservative policies and support LibDems, then that would involve the Conservatives breaking their promises.

    I am not very happy about the way politics is done in this country, I have been a constant critic ever since I got involved of the sort of top-down leader-oriented politics run by people who feel it should be presented as a sot of glossy consumer product. Indeed, the reason I joined the Liberal Party back in the 1970s is that back then it seemed to be offering a very different sort of human-oriented politics which it called “community politics”, which I found very attractive. But those of us who advocated such things were always told we were being amateurish and how we wanted it to be was not what won votes. Indeed, Nick Clegg and people around him tell us that now – that our sort of politics was just “protest” politics, winning votes “borrowed from Labour”, while Nick Clegg’s glossy leader-oriented politics is the sort of thing that wins votes, because people who were put off by the old beads and sandals image of the Liberals will be very much attracted to the professional politician “in government” image. OK, those new votes don’t seem to have appeared yet, but since I seem to be alone in saying what I’m saying, it must be that I’ve got it wrong, mustn’t it? I’m just some silly old dinosaur who doesn’t realise how things have changed and how I thought politics should be is now so out-of-date.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Sep '13 - 10:59pm

    Matthew Huntbach – Well, no. The alternative to democratic politics is crude majoritarianism. I suspect that what we are seeing is not really apathy, rather a sense that the young see politics as basically a fight that they are never going to win.

    About 18 months ago I went to a conference on, ‘youth politics.’ It was all I could do not to scream. The speakers seemed to take the view that youth politics was about online music licenses, ‘digital freedom,’ (whatever that is) and save-the-world ecology. When I suggested that the young might be interested in something like their standard of living rather than hopey-changey nonsense the reaction was silence. Youth politics is about the standard of living like any other politics and I am at a loss as to how so many people miss that very simple point.

    Our current political discourse is utterly dominated by those that got the sweet end of the generational deal. Nowhere are issues of housing, study debt and the like seriously tackled in the discourse that drives politics. Why would the young engage with a politics that prioritises rent-seeking for the propertied whilst telling them that buy-to-let living really is great. I have no desire here to revisit the tuition fees debacle, suffice it here to say that that is exhibit A in why the young feel that the current politics is a losing battle for them because the older will always have priority when push comes to shove.

    Where does someone go if they want politics to be really youth friendly, rather than just the kid’s stuff that was discussed at the conference I attended? Where do they do if they want student loans written off (no crazier an idea I would suggest that right-to-buy discounts). Where do they go if they want cheap secure housing, sticking it to BTL if need be? Where do they go if they want immigration curbed to reduce the wage arbitrage their parents never had to face? That is real youth politics and in our current majoritarian outlook it is nowhere.

    At the moment the message to the young is that they are little more than milch cows to be used to pay down debts and deficits that they did not run up. Of course they are disengaged. What exactly is the modern equivalent of the right to buy? Big Society? Community politics is something I came to see as a hollow buzz-word (sorry). Community politics are as vulnerable to corporatism as any other form of politics.

    Decisions are, of course, made by the people that show up. Maybe the days of mass engagement are over in our atomised society – the internet is a very poor substitute that stimulates collective inaction rather than genuine participation.

    But until we actually start to take the young’s concerns – their real concerns about their place in society there is nothing really for them to engage with.

  • Although I have no evidence other than anecdotally from my own family and friends, I would suggest the following:

    1. Too many career politicians.
    2. Too few conviction politicians, you may have held Thatcher, Tebbit or Benn in low regard, but they wore their political hearts on their sleeves. Sometimes it is hard to put a fag paper between the current leaders of the big three mainly as they are career politicians.
    3. Too many broken promises. Tories 1992 on taxes, Labour 2001 Tuition fees, Lib Dems 2010 Tuition Fees as three easy examples.
    4. Too much childish behaviour and point scoring and not enough consensus (even where it clearly exists).
    5. Too many jobs for the boys.
    6. Too many obvious attempts to misrepresent the position of the other party rather than engage with the point in question.
    7. Too few straight answers to simple questions.
    8. Conversely, not enough acceptance that sometimes there is no simple answer.
    9. The outdated rules on collective responsibility meaning we don’t see Lib Dem ministers arguing for a liberal approach (even when we are certain it has happened).
    10. Note enough diversity (a particular problem for the Lib Dems). That means in all ways, be it age, sex, race, etc and class. A working class black women who grew up in a council estate and speaks with a regional accent stands no chance of a truly senior position, whatever her skills. And there are gifted people out there who didn’t go to a “good” school or Oxbridge, I would not favour tokenism….

  • DAVEN, you and I are on the same wavelength. You complain about politicians making promises they know they can’t keep. I complain about politicians whose main focus is on beating their opponents by relentless negative and dishonest criticism, rather than actually trying to govern well and earn praise. These are two sides of the same coin – a political class composed of grasping careerists without real principles, who have degraded the political contest and driven away people with real idealism into single issue campaign groups and the like, who treat the public with contempt.

    Matthew Huntbach says that big business also tells lies (true) and that the Tories are doing what they promised to do. Well, I think the IFS told us at the last election that the Lib Dems were marginally less dishonest than their opponents because only 82% of their promised spending was based on tax revenues they couldn’t actually raise: the other two parties were even worse. The Tories promised no top down NHS reforms. The Tories promised that the NHS was safe with them. The Tories promised that they would cut down to size the bankers, the phone-hacking Press, the size of Parliament (then they doubled the size of the House of Lords). Promises kept? Matthew says that the Lib Dems have a special good excuse for broken promises because they didn’t win the election. That doesn’t explain away tuition fees, now does it Matthew?

    The problem is, it is a winning strategy. The best liars are the winners. People make derisive remarks about Miliband when he talks about being a man of steel. That’s because Miliband is a poor liar, he doesn’t like doing it, so he does it badly, he does it once at a time, and he gets caught out. Good liars, as Hitler taught us, lie big. They lie big, lie repeatedly, lie with righteous anger, and don’t get caught lying.

    Why have things got like this? It can’t be down to just a few individual politicians. It is too much a systemic change. There must be systemic reasons.

    Well – When I was young and starting out in politics, our common refrain was that there was far too much ideological baggage in politics – Marxist and socialist dogma, Thatcherite monetarist dogma on the other. We wished for less of it. Be careful what you wish for, is my parting remark to my younger self.

    In a sense, there was a basic honesty to political promises in those days. Labour would promise to shift the tax burden from the poor to the rich. When elected, they duly implemented that promise. The Tories promised and did the opposite when it was their turn. You could argue it was unproductive ping-pong – but it wasn’t dishonest. Then along came Blair, who believed in nothing except his own wisdom. What could Blair promise? Why, to be a more efficient manager than the previous guy. Was that honest? No, government staggered along with the same mixture of competence and incompetence as it always had. But the terms of political discourse had changed – from the class war to the war of the bullshitters. A change for the worse, I fear.

  • DAVEN, you and I are on the same wavelength. You complain about politicians making promises they know they can’t keep. I complain about politicians whose main focus is on beating their opponents by relentless negative and dishonest criticism, rather than actually trying to govern well and earn praise. These are two sides of the same coin – a political class composed of grasping careerists without real principles, who have degraded the political contest and driven away people with real idealism into single issue campaign groups and the like, who treat the public with contempt.

    Matthew Huntbach says that big business also tells dissemblings (true) and that the Tories are doing what they promised to do. Well, I think the IFS told us at the last election that the Lib Dems were marginally less dishonest than their opponents because only 82% of their promised spending was based on tax revenues they couldn’t actually raise: the other two parties were even worse. The Tories promised no top down NHS reforms. The Tories promised that the NHS was safe with them. The Tories promised that they would cut down to size the bankers, the phone-hacking Press, the size of Parliament (then they doubled the size of the House of Lords). Promises kept? Matthew says that the Lib Dems have a special good excuse for broken promises because they didn’t win the election. That doesn’t explain away tuition fees, now does it Matthew?

    The problem is, it is a winning strategy. The best dissemblers are the winners. People make derisive remarks about Miliband when he talks about being a man of steel. That’s because Miliband is a poor dissembler, he doesn’t like doing it, so he does it badly, he does it once at a time, and he gets caught out. Good dissemblers, as Hitler taught us, dissemble big. They dissemble big, dissemble repeatedly, dissemble with righteous anger, and don’t get caught dissembling.

    Why have things got like this? It can’t be down to just a few individual politicians. It is too much a systemic change. There must be systemic reasons.

    Well – When I was young and starting out in politics, our common refrain was that there was far too much ideological baggage in politics – Marxist and socialist dogma, Thatcherite monetarist dogma on the other. We wished for less of it. Be careful what you wish for, is my parting remark to my younger self.

    In a sense, there was a basic honesty to political promises in those days. Labour would promise to shift the tax burden from the poor to the rich. When elected, they duly implemented that promise. The Tories promised and did the opposite when it was their turn. You could argue it was unproductive ping-pong – but it wasn’t dishonest. Then along came Blair, who believed in nothing except his own wisdom. What could Blair promise? Why, to be a more efficient manager than the previous guy. Was that honest? No, government staggered along with the same mixture of competence and incompetence as it always had. But the terms of political discourse had changed – from the class war to the war of the bullsh*tters. A change for the worse, I fear.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Sep '13 - 1:17am

    “No, government staggered along with the same mixture of competence and incompetence as it always had. But the terms of political discourse had changed – from the class war to the war of the bullsh*tters.”

    This made my voice break with laughter. I have just been ranting about the political culture on a different thread. I diagnosed it about be about short-termism, and dissembling (or dishonesty) is a symptom of this. I come across the exact same thing in business, but I think the very best businesses stay away from it, and so should the best political parties (without expecting perfection).

    My suggestion to the thread’s dilemma of “what to do about the decline in interest among the younger generation”. My suggestion is not to think about attracting the younger generation. I became fascinated by politics when I was 24 and it wasn’t because someone did something they thought younger people would be interested in such as banging on about youth unemployment, getting onto the property ladder, or downloading free music and saving the planet (the cynicism of the youth that Little Jackie Piper correctly highlights); I got into politics because I deeply cared about what was right and wrong and thought it was right to help our democracy.

    The same problem with the attitude of “how do we attract the youth” is regularly seen with people obsessing about “how do we attract women” or “how do we attract ethnic minorities”. The solution to both that people daren’t try is to not think about attracting them and focus on on politics – Politics attracts people, not trying to attract people.

    I know I need to put my ideas into greater practice than on threads, all in good time.

  • @David Allen: How do you change the system when the levers of power are controlled by people who have every interest in maintaining a system set up to reward abuses, and when people can’t be bothered to get excited about ideas for political reform? Who would subscribe to a new People’s Charter these days? Scepticism of politicians and politics is widespread, but the ultimate end of such scepticism is, it seems, not a desire for change and reform, but a defeatist shrug that says “they all do it, so what difference does it make?”

  • Andrew Colman 11th Sep '13 - 8:47am

    This is good news for the business elite

    Can’t have young people denting profits

    The lobbying bill will accelerate this trend, stopping them from campaigning together on the internet.

    Carry on lads (Lasses (mps) We will give you nice little directorships when you retire as a reward

    Andrew

  • I suppose it could be simply that our politicians are human beings (albeit with high egos). So when faced with an ‘easy way’ as opposed to the hard slog of ‘the straight and narrow’ they, like most of us choose the former. And in an unforgiving 24-hour news world, this is there for all to see, unlike a couple of generations ago. And that is possibly how we got to where we are re. voter apathy.

  • Andrew Colman 11th Sep '13 - 9:15am

    It is ironic that we are having this discussion at the same times as MPs are supporting a new law (the lobbying bill) which threatens to gag people campaigning on the internet (likely to be mainly young people). Have MPs considered young how people are going to respond to this? The motive behind this bill seems to be to muzzle the unions, Tory MPs very sadly backed up Lib Dems seem to be living in a 1970s time warp.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Sep '13 - 10:14am

    Little Jackie Paper

    Matthew Huntbach – Well, no. The alternative to democratic politics is crude majoritarianism.

    How? In what way is society being run by the leaders of the big corporations “crude majoritarianism”?

    What I am saying is that in a democracy the influence of those with power and wealth due to ownership is balanced by the power of the ballot box where everyone is equal. To this day we sing that old Liberal song, the “Land Song” with that stirring line “Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hands?”. This dates from the time when power and wealth were in the hands of the titled aristocracy – the Liberal Party owes its origins to movements which challenged their power. The modern equivalent of the titled aristocracy are the leaders of the big corporations, because the complex nature of modern society means we cannot live without what they provide, and they assert ownership over it and so dictate the terms on which they provide it to us. In theory there is competition between them, in practice we know that big business here operates as a tight cabal in which the leaders have close links with each other, and success in their world and being invited to join them means accepting their values.

    The message that politics is bad, don’t get involved, is constantly being pumped out by most of the newspapers in this country, who act as the mouthpieces of that cabal. Even though newspaper readership is declining, it spreads from there into general culture. The anti-EU stuff, given to us here by John Roffey, is part of this. The message here that the EU is bad and that it is taking control of us is constantly being pumped out by these newspapers. Now, if people really were not voting because power has moved from the national Parliament to the EU, would not people be keen to vote in EU elections? Would they not be telling us exactly what it is that the EU is doing to dominate their lives? They aren’t, because they don’t know. They feel the EU is bad because they are constantly being told that, it serves as a distraction for the reality of power seeping from our democratically elected Parliament not to the EU but to international big business. If you look closely at the supposed interference in the UK of the EU that its knowledgeable opponents are talking about, it’s actually the sort of international co-ordination that is needed, such as an agreement to ban excessive working hours, to challenge the power of international big business.

    Democratic politics needs active involvement, it does not run itself. It relies on there being large numbers of volunteers to choose candidates from amongst their number who do not have the personal wealth necessary to fight an election as an individual, and to put together resources to run their campaigns. That is how political parties originated, as a way people could get together and make use of democracy effectively. So see what a vested interest the modern aristocrats have in bad-mouthing them, making out all politics and all politicians are bad, and so letting the power of the people through the ballot box that we still sing about dwindle to a formality.

  • The proposed Lib Dem manifesto commitment to abolish secret courts, a few months after having voted to introduce secret courts, is probably as good an illustration as you’ll find of why people are disillusioned with politics.

  • Although I have no evidence other than anecdotally from my own family and friends, I would suggest the following:
    @ Steve Way: Brilliant list. Needs repeating!

    1. Too many career politicians.
    2. Too few conviction politicians, you may have held Thatcher, Tebbit or Benn in low regard, but they wore their political hearts on their sleeves. Sometimes it is hard to put a fag paper between the current leaders of the big three mainly as they are career politicians.
    3. Too many broken promises. Tories 1992 on taxes, Labour 2001 Tuition fees, Lib Dems 2010 Tuition Fees as three easy examples.
    4. Too much childish behaviour and point scoring and not enough consensus (even where it clearly exists).
    5. Too many jobs for the boys.
    6. Too many obvious attempts to misrepresent the position of the other party rather than engage with the point in question.
    7. Too few straight answers to simple questions.
    8. Conversely, not enough acceptance that sometimes there is no simple answer.
    9. The outdated rules on collective responsibility meaning we don’t see Lib Dem ministers arguing for a liberal approach (even when we are certain it has happened).
    10. Note enough diversity (a particular problem for the Lib Dems). That means in all ways, be it age, sex, race, etc and class. A working class black women who grew up in a council estate and speaks with a regional accent stands no chance of a truly senior position, whatever her skills. And there are gifted people out there who didn’t go to a “good” school or Oxbridge, I would not favour tokenism….

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Sep '13 - 10:38am

    Little Jackie Paper

    Our current political discourse is utterly dominated by those that got the sweet end of the generational deal. Nowhere are issues of housing, study debt and the like seriously tackled in the discourse that drives politics. Why would the young engage with a politics that prioritises rent-seeking for the propertied whilst telling them that buy-to-let living really is great.

    Yes, I agree with your first and second paragraphs. When I was in my 20s, myself and my sisters returning from university to our home town and experiencing the huge problems caused by the house price boom even back then which looked lie making it so hard to find a place of our own, I help set up Brighton and Hove Young Liberals, me and a young woman called Carina Trimingham, and a student at Sussex University (where I was then doing my PhD) called Rob Heale (who I see still posts here – hi Rob!), and for me at least housing was one of the key things I wanted us to campaign about. We even organised an occupation of an empty property to try and get a message across about that. We didn’t wait around for others to tell us what youth politics ought to be about, we tried to work it out ourselves.

    Being in the Young Liberals meant we had links with others in similar situations, and being in the Liberal Party meant we could also campaign for what we wanted through that organisation. The Liberal Party being perennially short of volunteers meant, as I had and have found elsewhere, that if you were willing to get stuck in and do things in its name, you were left pretty free to do what you liked, so I ended up standing as a Liberal candidate in borough and county elections, only narrowly missing getting elected. In those days the Liberal Party had a good leftish stream which called itself “radical Liberal”, and which fitted in with my own political ideals which have not changed much since those days, so what I write now is what I thought then, and I found plenty of people in the Liberal Party who seemed to think similarly. I liked the Liberal Party’s “community politics” idea, which seemed to me to be all about encouraging active participation in democracy, and opposing the defeatist “don’t bother, you can’t change anything” attitude. I also felt the constitutional reforms the Liberal Party supported would very much help with this. I was angered by the way the electoral system distorted representation so that every MP from Sussex was a Conservative, leaving people like myself without a voice in Parliament, and giving the very wrong impression that everyone in my home county was the sort of prosperous home-owner that the Conservatives speak for.

    I haven’t changed since then, apart from getting fatter and balder, and I still think the sort of thing we were doing then is the way to get society changed. All I see with the drift away from involvement with party politics is a rise of pressure groups whose position is really to beg the politicians to change their minds, while doing nothing to change the politicians we have, so in the absence of active volunteers fighting for the left within party politics, the right with its wealth and influence dominates.

  • There was a party that had a strong appeal of hope for the young. For many years it had offered a vision of hope and fairness for the future based fairer votes; a small increase in income tax to pay for better education for the young; a clear opposition to tuition fees for higher education and a pledge to oppose any increase; and a promise from its leader of “An end to broken promises” by its relatively young looking and apparently radical leader.

    Sadly, although its vote rose went up, it lost MPs. However, due to the vagaries of the UK election system it held the balance of power and went into coalition. Sadly its leadership was totally unprepared for the realities of coalition, entering into a weak coalition agreement with no binding agreement on electoral reform; it found itself reneging on pledges, allowing a man to be appointed as education secretary who’s views seemed to be straight from ”Goodbye Mr Chips” and another, absolute butcher, to become Minister in charge of the one area of government where it was strong.

    That party was Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Need I say more?

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Sep '13 - 11:02am

    David Allen

    Promises kept? Matthew says that the Lib Dems have a special good excuse for broken promises because they didn’t win the election. That doesn’t explain away tuition fees, now does it Matthew?

    Sorry, as I have said, the Liberal Democrats did not win the election, so why should they be accused of “broken promises” because they have not been unable to implement everything that was in their manifesto? There were more Labour MPs than Liberal Democrat MPs elected, so why not say Labour has broken its promises because the current Parliament has not agreed to Labour Party manifesto policies? You may say the Liberal Democrats are “in government” and Labour is not, and that’s why I think – and have been saying since May 2010 – that the strategy of the Liberal Democrat leadership of boasting about being “in government” and exaggerating the influence it can have as a very small part of a coalition dominated by another party is so wrong. The words “in government” are taken to meaning what they used to mean – complete control of government – so every time someone like Nick Clegg uses them about the Liberal Democrats it gives ammunition to our opponents, since it suggests (wrongly) that we have complete control over what this government does, and therefore are in complete agreement with all its policies and they would be our policies even if we did run the government all by ourselves.

    I’m not a fantasist, unlike many on the left, which is why I accepted that the arithmetic of the Parliament the people of this country chose to elect in May 2010 and chose to endorse by endorsing the distortion which gave the Tories domination of it in May 2011, meant we had to agree to a coalition in circumstances where we were actually very weak in it, and could achieve little – a “miserable little compromise” would be a good phrase for it. To me, it’s what the people voted for, as I said in May 2010 and even more emphatically so in May 2011, and if they don’t like it then what they should do is obvious – don’t vote for it next time.

    On the particular issue of tuition fees – well the Liberal Democrats could have “kept their promise” by agreeing to cut down university subsidy costs by closing down half our universities – which I understand was one of the alternatives on offer. I don’t like the loan system, but if people didn’t want it, they shouldn’t have voted Tory, and they did so in more numbers than for any other party, and a year later they endorsed the electoral system which twisted the Tory representation upwards and the Liberal Democrat representation downwards, thus making the Tories so dominant in policy making. The Tories can rightly say that THEIR biggest promise was to keep taxes down, so to agree to the Liberal Democrats to continue subsidising university tuition would mean them breaking that promise.

    If Labour think the LibDems are bad people for not getting more concessions from the Tories, well they have a simple solution – offer an alternative which gives more concessions to LibDem policy. The number of MPs for each party now is the same as it was when the coalition was formed, so if an alternative Labour-led coalition was viable then, it is viable now. If Labour won’t offer this coalition and it is viable, they are as bad as the LibDems in letting the Tories get their way, it is their refusal to make a better offer to the LibDems that’s stopping it. However, in reality they know there are no enough Labour and LibDem MPs to make such a coalition viable, that’s why it couldn’t and can’t happen. If you don’t like it vote for electoral reform so it doesn’t happen again. Er, but the people of this country voted against electoral reform in May 2011, so emphatically that everyone says it’s off the agenda for a lifetime. The government we have now is what results from that.

  • David Evans 11th Sep '13 - 3:35pm

    Matthew,

    Although I can understand and at an intellectual level accept most of your argument, the problem is that most of the young (indeed most of the electorate who used to vote for us), don’t accept it, and won’t accept it. You are right when you say as the smaller party we couldn’t demand everything, but in the negotiations we demanded the wrong things (e.g. a referendum on AV) and we caved in on the wrong things (e.g. tuition fees). Nick has played our hand badly and lost.

  • Its interesting that the 25-34 age group shows the lowest interest in politics,

    This is the first generation to pay university fees and taxes – or penalties, which is a better name for them.

    This mean paying 41% tax on earnings over 15k.

    Why the hell am I paying 41% tax ?!? Why the hell is it flipping BANKERS who get a tax cut !?! FFS

  • Isn’t part of the problem that there are three parties for people who would like to protest outside the Miss England pageant (the choice of party depending on the reason for the protest), and no party for people who’d rather be inside watching the show? Young people are often fairly libertine, whereas the older people who political parties are aimed at tend not to be.

  • This is an unusual thread – we pretty much have an agreed consensus between most of the posters, and Steve Way’s brilliant ten-point list just about sums it all up.

    We should now move on to some further questions: How and why did it get like this? and, What can be done about it?

    If cynicism breeds despair, it will only help Crosbyisation. If it breeds anger, there is more hope.

    I think one of the reasons things got this way is because – The Big Lie, the Lynton Crosby tactics, and the relentless concentration on attacking the other side, are all things that work in practice. They win votes – though nobody likes to admit the fact. Nobody loves a negative campaigner. But lots of people are swayed by it.

    It follows that we – and the independent organisations such as 38 Degrees – should stand out against – not only policies they don’t like, but also political campaigning techniques which are dishonest and unfair. We have FactCheck to campaign against the misuse of statistics. We should have TruthCheck, LogicCheck and FairArgumentAgainst The OtherSideCheck as well!

  • Adam Robertson 12th Sep '13 - 12:01am

    I agree with Andy Boddington, that many young people are being disillusioned with politics. I find especially, where I live, there is a disillusioned mainly with the local County Council (Suffolk), as it seeks to undermine young people in several ways. Young People feel that their voice are not being heard on what issues, what are affecting them.

    There has been discussion that young people aged between 16 and 24, are more pro-EU than older people. I would agree partially with this comment, which depends on what kind of education, you have had. I argue this because many of my friends, who went to University, are strong supporters of the European Union. You only had Conservative Future (Young Tories) arguing against the European Union, although many of the policies from that organisation are anathema to many young people. I joined the Liberal Democrats, because they were pro-EU, and believed in reforming the EU.

    However, to many young people, who have left education from either GCSE’s or A-Level stage, believe that the EU is responsible for them, not having employment. This is because they are from a working-class background, where they believed if they would be trained in a specific trade like catering, they would have a job. What they are seeing, is that the influx of people from Eastern Europe, are taking ‘their’ jobs. I have repeatedly told friends under the Single European Act, that the EU allows freedom of labour, which means they can look for jobs in other countries, within the EU. However, they have been persuaded from the likes of UKIP, that they are being robbed of jobs and that politicians are not listening to them. There is a deep discontent by politicians from all mainstream political parties, to young people in inner urban areas. We have to address this issue with educating people about the full value of the EU and other benefits of all policies, which each mainstream political party puts up to them, at an election.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Sep '13 - 9:48pm

    David Evans

    Although I can understand and at an intellectual level accept most of your argument, the problem is that most of the young (indeed most of the electorate who used to vote for us), don’t accept it, and won’t accept it.

    Yes, but does that make it wrong? I very much agree with you that Nick Clegg has played his hand very badly, I’ve been saying it since the coalition was started, that though I could see the situation forced us into it, it was a miserable little compromise, and we should have said that instead of seeming to be so pleased about it. It was always going to be difficult, but Clegg and those surrounding him has made it far, far worse.

    I’m sorry, however, that politics has to be a choice between the possible. I’m not going to play the game of saying politicians are bad people for failing to deliver the impossible, even if people won’t accept it. Underneath it seems to me the problem here is that people don’t really understand how representative democracy works – that it is about a chamber of representatives coming together to agree on the most widely accepted compromise. It’s simply not possible for everyone to get everything they want something must give. I’m very sorry that the LibDems were unable to get what they wanted on tuition fees, but how were just 57 MPs to get that when there are 650 MPs in total? If there had been 326 LibDem MPs, then they could have got it. But there weren’t, were there? The people of his country decided not to vote that way.

    Of course, Clegg should have state it more bluntly in these sort of terms. And I think they should have proposed an alternative – 100% subsidy on university fees WITH the tax rises to pay for it, and challenged Labour to back it. In fact they should do that now. Mr Miliband if we are so bad for the tuition fees issues, tell us what YOU would do to get us to where you say we should be.

  • Simon Banks 20th Sep '13 - 5:52pm

    I don’t think this is mainly because young people don’t have much time. They’ve always had less time than retired people; and people now recently retired, who were young in the 60s, often gained their political commitment when young. The trend was obvious before the recession hit.

    Moreover, the decline is in attachment to party politics, not in caring about issues or being willing to engage in single-issue campaigns.

    I think several factors are in play. Politicians, apart from showmen/women like Galloway and Farage, are afraid of seeming extreme and making distinctive stands. We saw this at Conference on issues like Trident. When politicians do take distinctive stands, they’re often on things that do not enthuse many young people, like getting out of Europe. Most young people also follow what’s fashionable and avoid what they see as naff, so once politics is naff and uncool, people hesitate to get involved even if they’re interested.

    There is also a downward spiral which once started is hard to stop. Many people – not just young – complain they don’t see politicians on the doorstep even at election time. Well, this is partly because most voters don’t live in marginal wards or constituencies. But it’s also because all parties have to make do with fewer and fewer members and activists. The candidate may be very hardworking, but if two thirds of his/her time is taken up delivering the leaflet, not many doors will get knocked on! So more people conclude that politicians are lazy and don’t live in their world, so fewer get involved…

    Social media sites are a way round this especially to reach younger people, but not many politicians are good at this and much of the debate becomes nasty and stays shallow. We need to find ways of deepening on-line discussion.

    There are also factors that reflect on changing human characteristics – not just with young people, but they display the trend. Party politics is generally slow-moving and involves compromises. We increasingly want results immediately. Look at on-line campaigning sites and see how often they claim success within a few days: “You told X to do Y AND TODAY THEY PROMISED TO DO IT!” I believe complexes like the Murdoch press deliberately foster an anti-politics mood not just because politicians are easy targets, but because their commercial interest is served by democracy being weak – so the council won’t succeed standing against Tesco’s, for example.

    Finally there is the question of how young people who do show interest are treated. I suspect the Liberal Democrats are more welcoming than most because they so desperately need the activists and because our older stalwarts are more open-minded than Labour’s or the Tories, but sometimes a keen young person may not be encouraged to stand for council etc – maybe for fear of frightening them off. I do suspect some horror stories about how young recruits are treated actually mean nothing worse than asking them to deliver Focus etc as the first step rather than becoming a candidate and then doing some delivery – in other words, treating them how we treat all potential activists – but we need to explain clearly that there’s routine work that needs doing but also opportunities for anyone who wants to stand etc. And how many local parties set up opportunities for lively debate on issues? Not as many as once did, I think.

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