Young people aren’t apathetic - They’ve just been alienated


Picture of Ross Greer
Ross Greer

Ross Greer is Member of the Scottish Parliament, and external affairs spokesperson for the Scottish Greens

The UK would still be a member of the European Union if only the young people who supported Remain had actually bothered to vote. This analysis was impossible to ignore in the days and weeks following the Brexit vote, and was tempting enough for many to enthusiastically agree with it. After all, we know how bad turnout is among young people in election after election, and that’s based only on those who’ve actually registered.

The problem is that it wasn’t nearly as true as it first appeared. The original figure of 36% turnout among young people, compared to 72.2% overall, seemed to originate from Sky Data, based on conclusions they had drawn from 2015 UK general election data. Sky Data also claimed that if Scots had turned out in the same numbers as we had for our independence referendum, we could
have swung the result – never explaining how a 1.3 million vote margin would have been closed by 430,000 Remain votes north of the border. Despite this, the figures weren’t questioned and the
narrative was established: young people just hadn’t bothered. Fortunately, data compiled at the London School of Economics, released in mid-July, painted a different picture. Turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds was 64%, almost double the Sky Data figure, but not enough to compete with a turnout of more than 90% among over-65s, who overwhelmingly voted Leave.

Even with this new data, the question still stands: why, when faced with a decision that may have life-changing consequences for all of us, did one in three registered young voters not go to the
polls? There are, of course, a range of domestic reasons for this, and it’s worth looking at them before examining the wider issue of youth alienation and apathy across Europe.

First, the EU referendum debate itself was just terrible. The tone of both official campaigns was unreservedly negative, and often boiled down to two wings of the Conservative Party arguing about immigration and sovereignty in an entirely top-down manner. This was a referendum conducted by a few men in suits through televised debates and massive spending on billboards and newspaper adverts. Compare that to the UK’s previous experience of a high-turnout referendum, the 2014 vote on Scottish independence, which was an immersive affair with debates taking place at bus stops, in offices and classrooms across the country. In 2014, Scotland’s young people felt that politics was something we were all doing together, in which each of our voices was powerful. In 2016, the young people of the UK felt politics was something being done to them by largely remote and unlikeable establishment politicians.

Why, when faced with a decision that may have life-changing consequences for all of us, did one in three registered young voters not go to the polls?

The EU debate started off with most people very ill-informed. One senior Member of the European Parliament I know does not pretend to understand completely how the Union works. So what chance did we have of getting young people engaged and excited if, instead of positive and substantial debate, we offered a bitter and personal campaign – one that seemed far more about settling old scores than informing and persuading the public?

The referendum itself can’t be seen in isolation. British democracy hasn’t been at its healthiest for some time. A winner-takes-all and largely unrepresentative voting system, coupled with a distant,
arrogant political class drawn in large part from a tiny elite has persuaded many people – especially women, young people and working class people – that their vote won’t count and their voice
doesn’t matter. Expecting a single referendum – regardless of its importance – to undo this doesn’t begin to address the reasons why people aren’t voting. Even in Scotland, where the independence vote has had a legacy of high voter registration and increased turnout in the subsequent Westminster and Holyrood elections, it’s clear that 2014’s politics of mass participation is fading.

And just as the EU referendum didn’t happen in isolation from the rest of the UK’s electoral politics, British democracy doesn’t exist apart from European democracy – even if that’s how 52% of voters in the UK seem to want it. Across Europe, young people – and plenty of others – are uninterested, apathetic or alienated from the democratic process.

Like in the UK, there is a range of domestic reasons for this – some strikingly similar, others unique. In Greece, the anti-austerity coalition Syriza won an election and re-election with significant
support from young people. Those same young people, joined by many more, also voted overwhelmingly to reject the terms offered by the Troika of European and international institutions to deal with the crisis in their country. Despite three electoral victories in quick succession, their voice was resoundingly crushed by external forces. Is it any wonder those young people are disillusioned not just with their national democracy, but with Europe too? In Ireland, the economic crash caused many thousands of young people to leave the country in search of work. Though this led to heartwarming scenes last year, as many came “#HomeToVote” for equal marriage in a referendum, it again points to economic issues contributing significantly to young people’s alienation.

Young people have watched the relative economic security of the previous generation destroyed by mistakes made by that very same generation

And it’s important to recognise much of this as alienation, rather than apathy. Young people are often unfairly painted as lazy or even ignorant; instead, we should recognise how the political system has failed them and work to address it. Alienation is not apathy. Young people do care about their community, their society and the world they (and we) live in, but many feel powerless to do anything to change it. They feel defeated by forces far beyond their control, which more often than not seem abstract and difficult to identify in the real world.

Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid defined alienation, its causes and solutions in his legendary “rat-race” speech to Glasgow University in 1972. Printed in full by the New York Times and compared to the Gettysburg Address, it’s strikingly relevant to post-Brexit Europe. The solutions to this alienation are ambitious, far-reaching and will be met by considerable resistance from those who benefit the most from the status quo. They are the radical redistribution of economic power and political decision-making ability from a small number of people to our societies at large.
In our pursuit of a better Europe, one which will never again be shattered by war and where cooperation and solidarity are at the heart of the project, we must recognise that institutions have been
constructed that are unaccountable, distant, easily-caricatured by those who stand opposed to the European project, and used to the advantage of a tiny elite – thereby justifiably reinforcing the

Alienation is not apathy. Young people do care about their community, their society and the world, but many feel powerless to do anything to change it

Young people have watched the relative economic security of the previous generation destroyed by mistakes made by that very same generation. They see the promise of democracy – which in many parts of Europe their parents and grandparents fought and often died for – swept aside by market forces and institutions so powerful and distant they don’t know how or even whether it’s possible to fight back. Their experience of politics is of something done to them, not something we all do together. That cannot last. To save the idea of a Europe united in pursuit of peace and economic, social and environmental justice, we must together take back power over our economy, our governments and the European institutions. A Europe in which every one of us has a stake is one worth turning out and voting for.

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