People feel like politics does not fit into their lives. It’s ‘irrelevant’ and ‘far-removed’: a dirty word.
And when it comes to changing that perception we often don’t do ourselves any favours. The media loves a good scandal and Westminster gives them plenty to go on. Too often we turn in on ourselves, engaging in internal fights, and too often we take people for granted.
After Russell Brand’s comments about a supposed epidemic of apathy and the ‘benefits’ of not voting, I spoke on BBC Radio 4 to counter his arguments; I pointed out that there’s no doubting that many people are disillusioned with politics, but they are not apathetic and the solution is certainly not to give up on democracy.
More recently I spoke at a Greenwich and Woolwich CLP meeting, where we discussed young people’s perception of politics in a session called ‘apathy and aspiration’. A question was put about whether young people are apathetic to politics. As we know, young people are voting in fewer numbers and, when I ask my ‘non-political’ friends if they care about politics, the answer is often ‘no’. But I want to challenge this. Ask those same friends their opinion on apprenticeships, the NHS or the economy and you’ll hear strong opinions back.
I would go as far as to say I have never met a non-political young person in my life. Everyone that I know holds views on political issues: from litter on the street and the local hospital to the education system and matters of peace and war. Politics is part of our daily lives. It’s inescapable.
The problem is that the link between people’s daily lives and our political system is often missed. People are quick to associate politicians with corruption rather than positive change.
Many people view politicians negatively, but get to know them and the truth is that most are hard-working, decent people, trying to bring about positive change to their communities and wider society. Often people just aren’t given that chance to get to know their representatives. When we knock on a door and a young person answers, our first question is ‘can I speak to your parents’. We are missing out on hundreds of conversations every weekend.
Engaging with the electorate is about more than knocking on doors, however. I am a strong advocate of door-to-door campaigning and would never suggest that we should do otherwise. A two minute conversation with a voter to find out who they vote for, however, while incredibly important, is not enough. We need to do a better job of engaging with people on their terms – taking our messages into community centres, workplaces and living rooms across the country. Labour needs to be at the heart of each community.
It’s great that we have the ‘Better Politics’ policy commission to look at improving how we do politics and I welcome Ed Miliband’s announcement that Labour, if elected, will introduce votes at 16 – something that Young Labour has been campaigning on for years. But to make a bigger impact we need to go further still. We need comprehensive political education from an early age in schools that makes clear that link between everyday life and the political system. We need to teach people the importance of voting, debate the issues in classrooms and, quite simply, teach people how to vote.
We also need to do more with community organising, which is having a fantastic impact on our university and college campuses and in marginal seats across the country, and put resources into developing our supporters network.
Our current discussion about party reforms gives us a great chance to look at how we can reach out to more people, build a stronger movement and ensure that we are not taking anyone for granted. It’s important, however, that, while these discussions are taking place, we remain outward-facing and constantly prove our relevance and value to the voters we need to win over in 2014, 2015 and beyond.