Shaping debate on religion in public life.

‘Don’t Vote, Can’t Vote’: Youth Empowerment in an Age of Disillusionment

25 Mar 2015

Guest blogger Dr Nigel Pimlott is passionate about work with young people. He Deputy CEO of national youth work charity, Frontier Youth Trust. His latest book is, ‘Embracing the Passion’ – a book about Christian Youth Work and Politics. His PhD (2013) focussed on developing a model for faith-based youth work in the Big Society social policy context.

Russell Brand is a divisive figure. He is outspoken, controversial and alienates many people. At the same time, his views resonate with the experience of many: especially younger people who feel disillusioned with current political processes. He captures and articulates some of the angst, frustrations, longings and hopes of our times. I described him recently as a social and political ‘John the Baptist’ type figure – warning, highlighting, pointing, suggesting, illuminating, and getting our attention in preparation for what is to come.

In a 2013 interview with Jeremy Paxman, Brand eloquently encouraged people not to vote as he considered it pointless. He put this down, not to apathy and disinterest, but ‘absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations’.

Whilst doing research for my new book Embracing the Passion: Christian youth work and politics, I asked Christian youth workers if they agreed with Mr Brand. There wasn’t much support for his ‘don’t vote’ idea (69% disagreed with him), but widespread support for the consideration that the current system is very broken; 78 per cent thought our system didn’t represent their generation’s needs. These findings resonate with my own perspectives. I feel disempowered by contemporary practice. I have always lived in areas served by ‘safe’ seats – represented and secured by one political party for generations and somewhat unlikely to change. Even though I have always used it, my vote has made little difference to the partisanship present where I have lived.

Younger people appear not so electorally dutiful. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of Russell Brand’s argument, many young adults have already ceased voting. The Hansard Society reports that in 2013 just 12 per cent of 18-24 year olds said they were certain to vote in the next election – down 30 per cent in just two years.

We seem to have got into a cyclical pattern that whenever an election approaches there are calls and campaigns to get people, particularly young people, to register to vote and put a cross in their chosen box. Whilst no doubt noble and well-meaning, I simply don’t think it is good enough to say we need to vote to value democracy and/or honour those who fought for the right in the first place. Arguments of this nature have been further undermined as it looks like 1 million people (mainly younger voters) seem to have been ‘lost’ in the new voter registration process, something Ed Miliband has described as a ‘democratic scandal’. I am ashamed to say cynicism sometimes gets the better of me. I have wondered if some of the people (by no means all) who so strongly endorse the voting imperative are doing so merely to seek endorsement for the system they rely upon for their own purpose, gain and esteem. That somehow they perceive high voter turnout as democratic validation of current systems.

I am drawn to the idea of compulsory voting. I particularly like the idea whereby one voting option is to put a cross in a ‘none of the above candidates’ box. The results of such a process might be a real wake-up call for democracy.

As privileged democratic citizens, we need to go beyond what is and really stand up for democracy by challenging the current malaise: pursuing a more empowering agenda. If the principle of democracy is a correct one, then I believe the principle should be practiced at every opportunity – age should not lead to disqualification from the process. I would like to suggest that we need to involve young people more in our democratic processes, empowering them in ways that are engaging and meaningful. Opportunities need to be broadened and understandings increased so young people have seats at the tables that make so many decisions about their lives.

Before I get too critical of the state and its approach to involving young people in democratic processes, I have to ask if I am pointing out the speck in the eye of the Establishment, but ignoring the massive plank in the practices of the Christian faith I embrace. Whilst things are slowly improving, the church does not have a good track record of empowering young people and involving them in decision-making processes. Generalisations are always open to criticism, but I do not see too many places of faith giving children and young people, for example, full membership and voting rights. Committees and decision-making bodies are too often ‘adult only’ domains, or at best ones giving a tokenistic nod to the empowerment of young people and young adults.

Whilst we appear to have the title, branding and premise of a democracy, we seem a long way from this being something of real meaning and substance that serves everybody. Voting is just one action that can be taken to influence what the state, or church for that matter, does. Our democracy and expectation needs to go beyond simply asking people, young or old, to vote now and again.

The current voting age is an arbitrary boundary established by existing power-holders and, yes, we could lower the voting age. It has been 16 in the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man for several years and empowering 16 and 17 year olds had a dramatic effect in the Scottish Independence referendum. However, I believe we need to much more fully equip and inspire young people, to be fully involved in democratic processes – activism, campaigning, lobbying, advocating and, if necessary peaceful civil disobedience and dissent.

By his own admission, Russell Brand led a dysfunctional life, fuelled by substance abuses and driven by hedonistic goals. Having read his latest book and listened to him speak, I am in no doubt he has had a transformative spiritual experience and/or faith encounter. He is a reformed character. He understands the role faith plays in realising a better world. He understands Jesus (not in exclusive terms) as a ‘protagonist… from another dimension… saving humanity… ’. Fortunately, he maintains his zeal and wild side, but now channels this into the type of democratic activism I think we need to educate and empower our young people in. If we did, I dare to believe we would see less disillusionment with ‘what is’ and more opportunities to develop ‘what might be’: ourselves being protagonists and saving humanity, in whatever way we can.

Embracing the Passion: Christian youth work and politics is published by SCM Press and available at a discounted price from www.fyt.org.uk. Nigel can be contacted via nigel@pimlott.org.


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