So, the end of the Conservative Party conference concludes the Party conference season, and Isabelle Higgins, Cat Currie and I were fortunate enough to attend the Conservatives’ annual gathering. Hosted in Birmingham over four days, the conference brings together politicians and party members alike, along with a host of others from society who have vested interests in the party. Grand speeches from heads of departments form the basis of the conference, ranging from the Chancellor and the Minister for Transport who spoke on Monday morning, to the Prime Minister and the Minister for International Development on Wednesday.
The real substance of the conference however comes from the numerous fringe events. Occurring throughout the day from 8 in the morning until 9 at night, panel sessions are hosted by a wide range of organisations discussing a number of issues. These vary from women’s rights, Heathrow’s runways, the EU, HS2 and even one titled “How to avoid a political firestorm and what to do when you’re caught in one.” A popular one no doubt at a Tory party conference… As a neutral attending the conference, the diversity and quality of these fringe events are one of it’s the best features and a pleasure to be a part of.
However, we weren’t just there to make up the numbers. Our role throughout the conference was to engage more young people in what was happening in Birmingham, and to find out what those at the highest level are doing to get more youth actively involved in politics ahead of next year’s general election. We did this through sharing the major messages from the conference via the @itsapowerthing campaign on social media, and engaging in dialogue with those at the conference to find out their thoughts on youth engagement in politics.
What was striking as we attended a number of the fringe events was the sheer lack of youth voices on these panels. Even when the discussions directly involved young people, such as one hosted by the UK Youth & Young Enterprise on the topic of youth unemployment, there was no one to represent youth on the panel and only our Restless Development representation brought a youthful touch to the audience. What’s the old saying? What you do for us, without us, is not for us….
In the immediate aftermath of the conference, I can’t help but feel slightly agitated and angered by the lack of commitment shown by most politicians and organisations we met over the past few days in getting more young people involved in politics. How are we supposed to respect and trust those in power when we seem them on our TVs squabbling and shouting at each other like schoolchildren in a playground? Out of all the major speeches we attended during the conference, only Theresa May (Home Sec) spent the majority of her time describing the policies she would bring to the table in the upcoming year. Every other person that stood on the stage wasted half of their speech on childish insults towards Labour and their leader Ed Miliband. If politicians could just channel the energy they spend on trying to get one up on each other and transfer this towards their own policy construction, then they would undoubtedly gain more respect from the younger generation and maybe politics in the UK wouldn’t be in such bad shape.
Young people aren’t disinterested in politics; we care just as much as anyone else does on the issues that affect us. The reaction on social media most recently to Emma Watson’s speech at the UN on girl’s rights is proof that young people are interested and can be captivated by the issues facing us today, they just need to be portrayed through to us better. What makes young people disillusioned with it all is the nature of party politics. Grown men and women acting like children, trying their hardest to make their opponents look stupid through insults and put downs, behaviour that would be frowned upon in primary school let alone in the highest chambers of power. Perhaps if politicians could utilise social media more, holding Q+A sessions or simply just posting more on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, then they would immediately become more approachable to this generation. Rather than holding constituency surgery meetings at their offices on a Saturday morning, MPs could engage not only young people but the wider society too through more informal meetings held at a local pub. Members of the public could relax and chat with their representative to Parliament in an informal atmosphere, getting to know them better and helping to bridge the relationship gap between politician and the public.
However these are just ideas, and it must be recognised that we as young people need to do more ourselves to get our voices heard in the political arena today. Education is central to this, and compulsory teaching of the British political system in secondary schools is one idea that has been discussed heavily both at the conference and in wider circles of society. There should also be a website established in the run-up to next year’s election which would showcase every major political party’s manifesto. Being non-political and unbiased, this website would be a great starting point for anyone looking to easily access each of the major party’s policies. The biggest factor however is voting. Young people must vote if we are ever to get our voices heard at the highest level. Politicians are simple beings, craving the votes they need to get re-elected. If more young people did vote, and the 18-25 age group become a powerful voting block, then those in Westminster would have to listen to us and shape their policies towards our demands.
In his speech on Monday, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne spoke about giving young people “the key of opportunity,” and I feel it is about time we took those keys and unlocked our true potential.