If we want to engage young people, we need to change

20th August, 2014 10:47 am

It is actually possible to transform the landscape of youth engagement in politics. It’s an incredible injustice that so many young people do not vote or engage in politics, not because they are not interested, but because the methods of engagement are not youth friendly or their perceptions of politics are of self-interest and irrelevance. For the Labour Party, engaging young people in the political process is not just something nice to do, but vital to our cause.


We need to first look at the practical ways we can engage young people. I’m the Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) in Harlow, but I’ve spent almost a decade working with disaffected young people from some of the toughest and most deprived council estates in the country. Through my Harlow role, I’ve been given the opportunity to try out new ways of engaging young people in politics, providing platforms for them to engage with politicians and consider their own political involvement.

Over the last three years we have organised a variety of Pizza and Politics nights, involving live music, free pizza, a Shadow Cabinet speaker and a Q&A sessions. This creates an informal, friendly environment that is more engaging that a sit down talk at the local meeting hall. At one event we had over 70 people, 90% of whom were non-members. It was an exciting lively evening, helping young people see the link between the issues they are passionate  about and politics as a way of changing them.

I’ve visited a number of secondary schools in Harlow, not to speak about myself but to have an honest conversation with students about why they don’t engage in politics, what puts them off politicians, what would help them engage and what kind of political leaders would inspire them. These have by far been some of the most inspiring and impacting experiences of my campaign in Harlow.  You can start a session asking ‘who intends to vote?,’ and have no hands go up. By the end, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who had their hand down. When people suddenly realise the impact politics has, they want to have their say.

Last year when the Tories on Essex County Council wanted to cut youth services, we ran a huge campaign with local young people. Local councillors and I went into one of the youth clubs, and simply asked them what they wanted to do about it with us.  We discussed different options, but also had to inspire them that they did not just have to accept the decision but they could try change it. We launched a petition and saw the Council’s consultation plan get over 6000 responses, we changed the outcome.  Issues like this, EMA, housing or the lack of jobs are problems they want to tackle.

Second, we need to confront two underlying issues: our image and our engagement. In the long run to fully transform the landscape of youth political engagement, we do need more MPs from non Westminster bubble backgrounds, people who have lived and breathed the everyday lives of people, people that have been teachers, nurses, youth workers, shop workers. People who want to fight injustice because they have lived and experienced it and fought it outside of Westminster and decided that they have to get there to bring change. We also need to see local parties changing things up, changing up our meetings and become more young person friendly – this would take a new article but that change is needed.

It’s great to know Ed Miliband has asked Ivan Lewis and Lisa Nandy to look into engaging young voters in 2015.Young people are political they always have been and always will be, but the forms with which we ask them to engage in politics are old and not engaging, too meeting focused and the Labour party must be willing to change if it wants to engage a whole new generation of people into the party. If you want something new, you need to do something different, which may mean sacrificing some of the ways we do things but I for one think it’s worth it, and also we can’t quite afford not to.

Suzy Stride is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Harlow

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