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By Jess Lee – action/2015 youth panelist

What would you change if you were a politician? This was a question posed to all the young people who attended last week’s    ‘If We Ran Things’  event at Channel4 hosted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy.  This  event  is  part of  a campaign  that  encourages  young people  to tell  the UK government  what they would do if they were in charge.    Young people and politicians filled the room, while a live twitter stream revealed the changes young people around the country would make #ifweranthings.

I went along to represent Media Trust, the charity I work for, but also as a member of  the  action2015 youth panel.  Action2015 is a campaign through which people around the world demand ambition from their governments in setting the new development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals,  to fight poverty, inequality and climate change.  As young  people  are an  essential  part of this  campaign,  I wanted to find out how young people  in the UK  are engaging with politics and what they feel needs to change.  These  are important conversations to have if  we are  to successfully engage  UK  young people in discussions around the  Sustainable Development Goals.

Often we are told that young people don’t care, but throughout the evening,  I  had the opportunity to listen first hand to young people who  were mostly  perplexed, disappointed and  vexed about the county’s current state  –  particularly for the under 25’s. It was an empowering and refreshing movement to be part of, as one by one, young people took to the stand to let their audience  know what is important to them.

One person mentioned the  UK’s current ‘outdated’ education system.  She  described  how young people  struggle among intense pressure to gain A grades at GCSE and A level resulting  in them feeling disempowered to realise their full potential.  And how young people currently  leave  education  knowing precise mathematics but  without a clue as to how to hold their own in a job interview.

Inequality and social mobility were  recurring themes  throughout the evening.  Laith, one young speaker,  posed the  question:  “how can it be that we continue to cut welfare, when homeless people sleep rough next to newly constructed million pound flats?”.  Another  young woman  spoke  of her university  experience    where she was  the only black girl  to graduate  from her course. She  reflected on  the £9000 tuition fees, asking:  “how can we claim to stand for liberty and equality when a good quality education is reserved for a small minority at the top, and those of us bold enough and ambitious enough to aspire to this are shackled by financial implications?”.

MPs got to have their say too  and seized the  opportunity to show that they are listening to the nation’s young people.  There were mixed reactions from the  crowd when one MP reinforced the sentiment that failing to vote is failing to have a say in the future.  “Politicians chase the vote. If you’re not registered,    we  will create policies that are attractive to those who are,  the over 25s.”  Many young people in the room reacted sharply to this point.    “How can you expect young people to vote when they don’t know anything about politics?”

It would be wrong to suggest that these young people are not political engaged.  Young people  are fully aware of the issues that are  affecting them and others today in the UK. But they  feel disconnected from their MPs and the wealth of confusing policy information at our disposal. ‘Pale male and stale’ was a phrase coined to describe the MPs currently in Parliament.  Even at this  event aimed  at  creating  dialogue between young people and politicians, the  speakers  were  all  white men in their 50s. Where were the women speakers?  Or MPs from BAME backgrounds?  One  young woman    commented:  “I look at politicians and think,  there  is no one there that looks like me”.

Suddenly  I became aware of    the  lack of conversation around  how UK issues fit in with  global issues. In fact, I  had been  so absorbed in conversations about voting in the UK, diversity in politics, employment rates, domestic abuse, the drug trade and affordable living, that I too almost forgot one of the main reasons for my attending in the first place; my interest in the next international development agenda.  “Why do you think there was a lack of conversation around international development?”  I asked one attendee. Her answer  did not surprise me:  “I think it’s because we feel we have lots of our own problems here in the UK.”  In order for young people to want to understand the Sustainable  Development  Goals,  they need to understand how the  global issues which these  goals  address  affect everyone everywhere. Not  just individuals in developing countries.

Reflecting on the  points raised and discussions held around the room, it  is  clear that to engage young people in important  issues,  we need to make information accessible, create a dialogue with young people and not just expect them to passively absorb information. Young people  clearly want to understand politics, engage their politicians and vote responsibly  but   feel  their needs and opinions are not taken seriously.  I hope to see many more events like  ‘If We Ran Things’, not just in the lead up to the upcoming election but beyond. I want to see young people finding their voice, while the people in power get ready to listen.

Interested in discussing this topic yourself? Restless Development will be holding its ‘Reframing the Vote‘ panel discussion on the 2nd of April 2015 from 6.30pm.

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