Getting Down with the Kids

On April 9th in Brussels hip hop artists Uncle Suel and Laioung joined MCs Dekay, Mils, LeeN, and Mos Prob in a rap battle hosted by MTV Voices. The key performers were eight MEPs. The event, held in the European Parliament, aimed at encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming European elections. Some have condemned it as a desperate gimmick, but desperation may be warranted: Europeans aged between 18 and 24 are set to turn out in May in record low numbers. One of the lowest youth turnouts will be in Britain.

According to a Eurobarometre survey only 56% of young people in Britain are ‘likely to vote’ in May’s election; this is compared to 80% in Belgium and 76% in both Ireland and Sweden.[1] In the 2009 European elections just 20% of 18-24 year olds and 35% of Britons altogether voted.[2]  Even a 56% youth turnout this year, then, seems somewhat unlikely.

One explanation is that Britain’s youth are ill-informed about EU matters. In Sweden for example the national curriculum includes compulsory education about the European institutions and the voting process. In Britain 94% of young people[3] (and 82% of Britons overall) say they know little or nothing about the EU’s institutions and its policies. [4] Evidently from school children to pensioners the British public needs to be better informed about the EU.

Yet Britain’s youth are not just abstaining in European elections. In 2011 less than half of 18-24 year olds voted in the general election compared to almost three quarters of those over 55. Indeed, the turnout gap between the oldest and youngest in Britain is by far the largest in Europe.

Some blame this on the disengagement of Britain’s youth from politics. Increasingly over the last decade the British media has portrayed a disinterested and politically apathetic generation. Russell Brand has stepped forward as representative of the many people he claims share his belief in the futility of participating in the political system.

This explanation is not only unsatisfactory but misleading. Arguably it has led to such embarrassing moments as MEPs hip hop dancing in the European Parliament and David Cameron appearing in a One Direction video. Are young people apathetic? According to a recent survey the number of young people participating in political activity in Britain is higher than the European average.[5] After the Irish, young Britons are also the most likely to be engaged in action to improve their community.[6]And Britain is one of just five European countries in which young people’s trust in government has gone up not down since 2007.[7]  Young Britons are interested in their societies, and in politics even. They are just not voting.

One reason could be because the British youth do not feel they have a moral or civic obligation to vote.[8] In order to mobilise young people, then, politicians need to give them a reason to vote; appealing policies that further their interests. Politicians, however, are unwilling to invest the time or money in campaigns directed at a demographic who are statistically unlikely to vote. So instead of policies and ‘grown-up’ politics, young people are targeted by determinedly apolitical initiatives (Bite the Ballot, for example). These hope to fill them with enthusiasm about the process of voting and send them dancing, singing and tweeting their way to the polling stations.

Such initiatives may generate publicity around elections but often rely on crude stereotypes about youth culture and risk patronising rather than engaging the young electorate. The MEP Rap Battle, for example, got some young people talking about the European elections on social media but it seems highly unlikely that it sparked any real debate about policies.

European elections, even more so than general elections, have been traditionally skewed towards older generations. Young voters are most concerned by youth unemployment and economic growth in Europe.[9] In Britain, however, the question mark hanging over membership of the EU eclipses such issues. According to a YouGov survey, 71% of UKIP voters are over 50, compared to 46% of the overall population. If politicians do not learn to appeal to young voters’ political interests rather than their music tastes, it is not just the turnout that will be at stake.

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_375_en.pdf

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/eurobarometre/post_electoral/EB71.3-FocusonAge-EN.pdf

[3] For the purpose of this survey ‘young people’ includes those aged 15-24

[4] http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_318_en.pdf

[5] Eurofound (2014), Social situation of young people in Europe, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. p.20

[6] http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_375_en.pdf

[7] Eurofound (2014), Social situation of young people in Europe, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. p.21

[8] http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_375_en.pdf

[9] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/eurobarometre/post_electoral/EB71.3-FocusonAge-EN.pdf

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