Dr Benjamin Bowman, a lecturer at the University of Bath, gave a talk on his research around the issue of young people and their engagement, or lack thereof, in politics in the UK. He began by getting the audience to vote on a live poll about political engagement, using questions from researchers Henn and Foard. Our poll’s answers were more optimistic about the state of politics than those from the national results, perhaps due to political engagement being predictably higher amongst a politics society than the average youth population! The most convincing response, unsurprisingly, was of disbelief that parties will keep their promises.
Bowman used these results and the national results to explain the implied problems with the words ‘Political’ and ‘Engagement’ in our culture.
Political has a ‘sledgehammer effect’ of killing conversation around the subject. He said that young people, even the very politically engaged, shy away from the word, preferring to believe that what they engage with is not politics, but rather ‘real life’. Young people therefore put this reaction into practice and abstain from voting. He emphasised that everything we do is political and that politics is real life, but the mere mention of the word his research has found puts people off.
Engagement was also a prevalent word throughout the presentation, despite Dr Bowman’s claims that it “gives him a rash”. Bowman’s dermatological difficulties can perhaps be attributed to the umbrella belief that ‘young people don’t vote’. He said young people are very politically engaged, and that people shouldn’t dismiss them as non-voters, but rather examine the causes as to why they aren’t voting. He used the extended metaphor of politics as a bus route. If young people aren’t getting the bus anymore, it’s a mistake to think they don’t like the buses. Does the bus stop at the right places? Does it come at the right times? Where are they trying to go? In the same way, Bowman argued, politics is not serving young people and as a result they are not involved with it — not vice-versa. This was how he interpreted the stark figures of young people vote turnout dropping dramatically over the last 20 years to 40% and lower.
The UK, Dr Bowman explained, is unique throughout Europe in that our young people ‘engage’ the least in political activity other than voting, too. In France for example, the number of young people that protest against the government is far higher. He explained that this relationship has broken down because young people are not given an effective voice in the policy making process. A sobering story he told about the insignificance of party youth wings was the time a Tory Cabinet member half-jokingly told him that they are simply a tool for handing out flyers and a ‘good place to meet your future husband or wife’. Young people are seen as “apprentice citizens” rather than actual citizens; Bowman argued for youth wings to become a place of genuine consultation on policy about young people.
Dr Bowman ended his talk by discussing his youth group research, considering the relationship between young people and public space, and how this is inherently political. When doing research with young people, he said, we need to be creative in which methods we use, and not just count numbers, but to conduct open, qualitative research involving opinions.
Dr Bowman spoke engagingly and with passion; his findings thought-provoking and relevant. Our thanks to him for coming in to talk to the society.
This week also saw a strong cake-making debut from committee member Tobias Schendell who challenged Gabriel Ralph’s third week of culinary dominance. This was a clash of classy chocolate brownies by the former and some crowd pleasing flapjacks from the latter. Another week, another delicious showing from a widening arena of cake competitors.
By Benedict Barrett
This article represents the views of the author, and not the views of the Politics Society, nor of Bishop Wordsworth’s School.