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Elections: Engaging The Young

Mal Fletcher
Posted 21 April 2010
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Political debates often constitute the second most boring form of television known to man.

Pole position goes to the inevitable talk-fests, the post-mortems that follow the debates, where pundits get to play Simon Cowell (badly).

This week, though, as Britain struggled to get airborne under a cloud of volcanic ash, an eruption of a different kind shifted an entire election landscape. And it all started with a political debate.

It took just 90 minutes on the box for Nick Clegg to lift himself in the public mind from also-ran to serious contender for the highest office in the land. At least, that what the polls are telling us.

There's good reason to be wary of these particular polls. For one thing, the unusual popularity ratings following Mr. Clegg's performance may owe something to the sheer novelty of holding the first TV leaders' debate in British election history.

Yet it seems these high ratings are also grounded in something which is potentially more lasting: a surge of support for Mr. Clegg among young people and women.

Why should the young feel an affinity for Nick Clegg above his opponents? It may be that age-old predilection of the young for change, especially change that comes from the 'outside'.

Clegg isn't an outsider, but he can be made to look that way. Unless people are keen watchers of Prime Minister's question time, he seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Because he's had relatively little media coverage he has little history in the public mind.

All this means that, for the time being anyway, he can quite safely paint his or her opponents as outdated dinosaurs and, more significantly for the young, as agents of retrospection.

We shouldn't read too much into post-debate polls taken over just a few days because of course everything could change again just as quickly. If under closer media scrutiny Mr. Clegg's policies are shown to be untenable, or less beneficial to the young generation than they had originally thought, well, it may be a case of 'The TV giveth and the TV taketh away'.

Yet whatever the eventual result of the election, the fact that Millennial generation adults - those aged under 25 years - have felt inspired to engage with the political process means that the electorate as a whole is a winner.

Voter turn-out at elections has followed a mainly downward arc for the best part of four decades. Yet in the past week, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of voter registrations, especially among the young.

This bodes well for the future, given the British electorate's general weariness of all things political. Most of the electorate are tired of politics; partly because few political leaders seemed able to articulate a viable way out of the recent recession, and partly because of the MP's expenses scandal.

The latter problem raised serious doubts not only about the character of MPs, but about the parties' selection processes, which allowed so many bad apples into Parliament in the first place.

Public weariness is also fed, I suspect, by a sense that globalisation has invested in regional bodies like the EU much greater authority than national governments when it comes to the major issues affecting our future.

On some of these big issues, national politicians and national politics seem almost irrelevant to the decision-making process. What's more, when politicians do cede influence to intra-national conferences and committees, they still can't agree on a way forward - as evidenced by the Copenhagen climate change debacle.

There's no way of knowing whether an increase in voter registrations among the young will translate into actual votes cast on election day. For a generation with famously short attention spans, this may depend on the performance of the candidates in the rest of the debates, starting tomorrow.

Yet at a time of deep cynicism and distrust, our political process needed an injection of the kind of energy, vibrancy and natural optimism the young carry with them in bucket-loads.

The key now is for the politicians to hold their interest.

One way of achieving this is for the various candidates to tell the plain truth, but in a spirit of optimism. The Millennial generation has grown up alongside the most elaborate special effects industry in history. It has finely tuned 'plastic detectors'. It can smell phoniness a mile away - at least, that is, from its elders.

In latching on to Nick Clegg for the moment, many young people are perhaps looking for the Obama factor.

Although much of the American President's early lustre has worn away in his own country, after the sharply divisive healthcare debate, there is still an echo of Obama-ism in other parts of the world.

It was Obama's perceived hopefulness, and his willingness to state hard facts without pessimism, that appealed so much to the many young people who helped elect him.

In Britain, more than a few Millennials will be hoping that someone with even a small measure of that same charisma, charm, poise and a positivity might emerge to lead us forward - out of the shadowlands of spin and recession, into a noble destiny.

Yes, that does sound idealistic - but the young are almost by definition idealistic and that's a very good thing for society as a whole. There's plenty of opportunity in life to learn the hard lessons that produce pragmatism in some and cynicism in others. Right now, Britain needs some youthful hope.

To keep the young engaged, political leaders must also find ways to speak to them where they are listening. Since social networking and new media played a role in President Obama's success, there's been much talk here about whether British pollies can use them with the same success.

Yet there are traps for unsuspecting politicians. Social networking is built on a culture of conversation: it must not be seen as a bully pulpit from which to preach ideology, but as an opportunity to engage in genuine dialogue. That's hard for some politicians, whose idea of a conversation at election time is 'Please vote for me'.

Holding the support of the young will also mean putting pragmatic goals on specific issues above party ideology. Leaders must do this without abandoning the deeply held convictions that inform their positions on those issues. The young adults I talk to seem to be looking for leaders who are focused without being myopic.

The emerging generation is not as ideologically wired as earlier generations. Raised under the cover of moral relativism, it has come to believe that nearly all belief systems should be held lightly, so that they can be adapted to shifting situations.

This produces an admirable ability to separate support for issues, and getting the job done, from blind loyalty to political parties. Yet it also produces in many a search for reference points amidst a storm of change; people who will stand with total conviction for what they believe.

Theirs' may not be an ideological generation, but Millennials are very civic minded in their outlook. Around the world, research has shown that they are for the most part quite positive about the future, believing that it's their generation who will create a better world.

In one study, Millennials were asked what groups of people would have the biggest impact on the future. The most popular answer was: scientists and young people.

Finally, to hold the attention of the young adults of today, leaders must address big-ticket items and be willing to form alliances.

This is the first generation born into full-blown globalism. Thinking 'bigger picture' is normal for them. Global issues have become their local concerns.

This generation wants to hear about huge ideas that will produce tangible benefit for the maximum number of people. They want to see how politics affects not only them and their immediate peers, but people like them the world over, rich and poor.

Young voters don't want to know about - don't have time for - nano-managed small details. They want broad outlines and strategies for how leaders plan to measure success and failure.

Whether Britain ends up with a hung parliament - others prefer to call it a coalition government -- or not, leaders must be willing to form short and medium-term alliances if they are to garner respect from the young.

They know that to achieve lasting change, groups with quite different loyalties must sometimes put aside their differences for the sake of a wider good. This generation is watching the development of the next big revolution in human communication - cloud computing - and it's a process built on the willingness of big corporation to work together for the common benefit.

Today's politicos must be sure that, win or lose, they leave the political process a winner - by showing the next generation that politics can be about big ideas, matched by solid character and purpose.

After all, as has so often been said, 'politics is too important to be left to the politicians'.

Copyright Mal Fletcher 2010

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