After Russell Brand’s now infamous call for people to abstain from voting, the issue of whether the electorate should and will vote has become an increasingly prominent issue, especially in light of the recent Scottish Independence Referendum allowing 16 and 17 year-olds the vote, a move that may well be replicated across the UK at future elections.
On Thursday, May 7th 2015 the General Election will take place, but will we witness an ascent in the electoral turnout? Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, voter turnout was maintained between 70% and 85% for every General Election until Tony Blair’s second victory saw a sharp decrease to 59.36%, a figure that did rise again to 65.11% in 2010, probably as a result of uncertainty over the eventual outcome. However this figure still means nearly 35% are not exercising their freedom to vote. A contributing factor to the missing proportion of voters is disillusionment amongst today’s youth over who is representing them. Across several European countries we see a greater number of older citizens voting as opposed to younger people.
One organization that is resolving to engage and inspire younger people to connect with the democratic process is Bite the Ballot, an organization established in London but with an office in Birmingham. I spoke to Birmingham’s passionate Community Engagement Officer, Sawsan Bastawy, about the organization’s vision and general assessment on the relationship between young people and politics.
JB: What is the primary intent of BTB?
Sawsan: Bite the Ballot works to create spaces and opportunities for people aged 16-24 to empower themselves to participate in democracy. We work on a model of inspiration. Our challenge is to inspire people to inform themselves; inspire them to engage with the issues that they care about; and ultimately, empower them to take an active role in democracy. We don’t mention obligation or legality. We want people to participate in democracy with enthusiasm, not because they feel they have to. Fortunately for us, the inspiration model is vastly more successful, which is why it costs us 25p to register someone to vote, while it costs the government £25.
JB: Are people disengaged with politics, or is it just party politics they feel a lack of connection with?
Sawsan: People aren’t disengaged with politics. Politics is everywhere, and it affects everything. What people do not necessarily do is make the connection between democratic participation and their life. When people aged 16-24 give me reasons why they don’t see themselves voting in the future, it has more to do with a) consensus politics: “they all sound the same and say the same thing, except for that one party”; b) useless politics “what difference does it make who wins? Nothing will change- nothing ever does”; c) unrepresentative politics: “I know what I want, but I don’t like any of the parties”; d) inaccessible politics: “I don’t know anything about the parties.”
The responsibility, in all instances, is on the politicians and their parties to meet these people half way. At the moment, people aged 25 and under are standing at that meeting point waving their hands furiously, trying to get the attention of the policy-makers. If they aren’t willing to meet under-25’s, shake hands, and talk about their place in democracy, the younger generations will turn their back too. Of course they won’t make the connection between what’s going on in their day-to-day lives and the government. Of course they won’t feel that their democratic participation is valuable. This is where Bite the Ballot steps in.
JB: Recent election turnouts have been disappointing; do you feel that uncertainty regarding the 2015 result will spark a rise in the turnout?
Sawsan: Absolutely. The coming General Election will mark a change in history – we have two parties, the Green Party and UKIP, whose popularity is snowballing; a strong opposition party; and a coalition government. In addition, the momentum built by the Scottish Independence Referendum towards a revamp of a political system has introduced the idea that real and meaningful change is possible. This is a liberating and exciting time to participate in democracy and to use your vote.
JB: What effect does what is happening globally impact younger generations here in the UK?
Sawsan: Global events impact UK youth immensely. Whether it’s concern over ISIS; TTIP; or global economic security and whether it affects our ability to enter the workforce; we are very much aware of the impact that events on the other side of the world have on our lives. More than this, however, we are seeing movements, youth-led movements, all over the world. From the Arab Spring to the student movement in Mexico, to the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong- the status quo is changing. People are reclaiming power and our actions- and our votes matter.
At the core of their drive to attract more young people into participating with the democratic process, Bite the Ballot, are taking part in National Voter Registration Day on Thursday, February 5th 2015. To find out more about this and the work Bite the Ballot do there are a variety of contact links down below:
Twitter: @bitetheballot or @bitebrum
Phone: 0203 609 3510
And for Sawsan, you can email her at Birmingham@bitetheballot.co.uk