Bite the Ballot is a grass roots campaign created by young people to inspire others to speak up and be a part of the decisions that directly affect us. They have campaigned rigorously for youth engagement in politics.
Our reporter Tom Sanderson interviewed Mike Sani, Chairman of Bite the Ballot, to find out about the story so far..
I want to start the interview by talking about Bite the Ballot, what was the inspiration behind the campaign?
I would say the inspiration behind the campaign came, a year before it started. I was teaching at a secondary school in Dartford with a colleague of mine, co-founder of the movement, David Hughesman, and he was the head of business studies. I had no interest in politics at all, I have never voted, I was never on the electoral register and I was one of those people who pretty much said let them get on with it, it doesn’t affect me.
David would say to me that this is political and he really galvanised me to see how politics affect my everyday life and in-turn I began to look and see how it affected the everyday life of the students. It was around about the time when we were approaching the general election and I asked the students and members of the sixth form if anyone was going to vote, and one patellar class of around about 24 all said no.
That really resented with me, and I just through that this is just not right, how on the one hand can I be a 27 year old male and never really see the importance of politics and how can all these who have just turned Eighteen have the right to determine elements of their future and not even what to play a role in it.
We began to break down the barriers of why they were saying no, and it was things like; I don’t know how to vote, I don’t want to embarrass myself, no one really speaks to us, it doesn’t affect me, nothing will ever change and I just refused to believe that. So it was from then that Bite the Ballot was born.
Tell me a bit more about Bite the Ballots founding members, what are their backgrounds?
I regard the founding members as the young people, myself, David and a few more teachers who played a role in it. David is 34 years older than me and he’s very political, he really does believe that everyone should be involved and that rubbed off on me and the students.
My background is quite mixed, I have been to university and my first job was at the bank of America, but I quit because I didn’t really like that job, there was no sense of fulfilment for me at all. So I went off traveling for a year, and moved into teaching. On the side of that the acting aspirations
The background of the younger people are students in different areas but came under a common cause of we can do this; the word impossible was not in our vocabulary. We knew the challenge and still three years later know the extended of the challenge and of course we are nowhere near where we want to be, but in the words of Winston Churchill “this is not the end, this not even the beginning, but it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end”
Can you tell me about some of the other people and organizations that have got involved with Bite the Ballot?
There have been so many, some have been fruitful and successful and some have been really short-term for one patellar event, but I guess one of the main things about Bite the Ballot is that the awareness is there. I never really think that we’re not in touch with that organization anymore but I think as least they know who they are and that we have left a footprint, so that when we come to 2015, they might talking about politics even if they are not talking about bite the ballot.
We’ve engaged various schools and colleges and youth media. The Press is a big one because we’ve not had much bite from the mainstream media and I guess that really we are not likely to until 2015 when Britain goes election. The youth media however has been fantastic
I guess one of the most exciting organizations or industry area that we are enjoying is the digital side. We’ve been talking with people like YouTube and Google and that makes you think wow, this started as an idea in a classroom and now we’ve just left a meeting at Google HQ, that’s pretty cool.
One of the main ones that we have been successfully engaging with is Westminster and this is exactly what I enjoy doing most, to facilitate that conversation between the everyday person and the public servant and the decision maker.
Bite the Ballot also has some sporting connections, I’m going to throw a few names out there, and I’ve got Amir Khan, Jonnie Peacock, Stephanie Reid and Tanni Gary Thomson. Could you tell me how they got involved with bite the ballot because sports and politics seem like two very different worlds?
They do seem like very different worlds, but they are not. Everything is affected by politics. Look at the Olympics, who put the bid in for that? MP’s, Lords and the sporting greats. There is so much cross over between both worlds and from bite the ballots perspective it was pretty cool when we managed to get an interview with Amir Khan,
I worked with Jonnie Peacock and Stephanie Reid when I was acting; I did a little bit for a documentary that went out with Channel Four called inside Incredible Athletes. At the time they were both training to represent Great Britain but they had not been confirmed yet. I approached them to ask if they do an interview with us and they both said yes.
Tanni Grey is decorated as the most successful Paralympian athlete ever and in my option one of the most iconic members of the House of Lords, she is so great and she works so hard. We’ve worked together a few times and she’s a great supporter of the campaign and I often meet with to discuss other avenues and she comes to debates and events, she’s brilliant.
On a day to day basis (if there is such a thing as a typical day) what does bite the ballot do?
There is no such thing as a typical day. As much as everything is going digital, I still hold a paper diary and sometimes when I’m on the train I would often flick though to what’s coming up but I would often flick back and I can look at weeks where I have been to a school in a certain area across the UK.
I have meetings here there and everywhere and because of Bite the Ballot’s business model, there are so many areas that you need to develop relationships with because you want them all to grow at the same time. We are working hard so that our digital side progresses at the same time as the campaign and at the same time as the number of registrations all at the same time as the events grow so we can attract more people.
There are elements where a few of us will gather in the office and we will be doing things together such as updating our resources or putting in funding bid, there is no secret, anyone in the sector will tell you that those things take a long time, you can spend the best part of a week filling in a funding application and if it’s unsuccessful, it really does feel frustrating because you haven’t got the finance department sitting there doing that for you.
We are a team of people who cross over in different areas and quite frankly, many people who have worked for the organization and still work for the organising in have purely been burning on passion
Could you tell me about the campaigns and events that bite the ballot are running at the moment? What have you got coming up?
I think the heart and soul at the moment is Rock and Roll. This is essentially a campaign to engage more young people to register to vote, so that they feel like they understand the channels of commutation, feel the value democracy and all the responsibilities that come with that so the future generations feel like they are local, national and global citizens.
Rock and Roll is the main priority, its pilot was last year, we visited 20 schools, and we were supported by the cabinet office. We are really proud to say that we registered around 4000 young people to vote and almost all of them didn’t even know what the electoral register was.
So we looked at how we can scale that up but all the will in the world our team can’t visit everyone we are looking at how we can make the resources transferable for other and that what we’ve been doing reason tally and we are delighted that we are going to working with the national citizens service this year.
Yesterday I’ve just trained some citizenship teachers and they are going to go back to their school and get there students to register and create that ripple effect so that’s our core
Around that we will develop more social action activities and turn them digital, so that you can facilitate your journey though skills actions and knowledge in the science that you can earn a digital badge, if you remember ear you scout days where you could earn a badge for doing something in the community, we are trying to digitalize that.
For example, if you organise a debate you earn a badge, if you run an event you can earn a badge, if you host an election you earn a badge, if you run a registration rally, but you can take these badges and you can decide where you want to display them, so they can be on your LinkedIn Facebook etc. etc.
An employer, University applicator or an apprenticeship can click on that badge that a young person has sent them see all the criteria they have to have been awarded it so it’s a great way of showing you experience and a great taking point for things that you have done for your community s
We are looking to do more events which hold an element of idols and celebrity participation because one of the sole aims of the organization is to rebrand politics and we need the people that the every day public are interested in to say that democracy mattered because that enables people to say, “well I really like those people and I’ve kind of formed the option that politics is boring but now that they are taking about it it’s going to make me question it again.”
We also want help change policy for the future, we have had a lot of young people feed into My Manifesto and tell us the things that they would want to change if they went back to school, it’s great to take those to the decision makers and policy writers and say people want political education, people want financial education, people want these things in school and equally the more young people register to vote, the more likely these policies will get considered in 2015.
Any politician wants to win votes, they want to retain their seat, they want to retain their job and the more people who are involved, the more they have to considerer everyone rather than just the older demographic who are likely to vote.
Bite the Ballot has some strong ties in America with Rock the Vote. How is the political landscape different for young people in the two countries?
I think the main difference is how young people engage with politics from an early age, they all grow up understanding the constitution, they understand their rights, and it’s very much put on the individual. It’s build around freedom, rights, responsible and opportunity. Everyone grows up with this inherent understanding of these things and they adopt those philosophies n all that they do. You understand what it is to be a citizen of The United States of America and the vote is a key part of that.
I think that’s one of the things that we really lack here. Some people call Great Britain the mother ship of democracy. I’m afraid the mother ship has not had the wind blowing here sales for a long time because we have let democracy go sour. We can’t even inspire our youngest citizens to believe in the right to vote. It needs revamping. America has led the way with many things they have done especially with people like Rock the Vote, engaging idols and celebrities.
You get the feeling in America that when someone has made it to top, they look back to their community and think; how can I help out? We need a bit more of that here, we saw a lot of that with the Olympics but we don’t get enough of that with our day to day stars and they hold a lot of power and a lot of influence, they can send out some real positive messages.
Another key difference here is that we tend not to grow up feeling a sense of community and volunteering and that’s a big thing that most Americans grow up with, it’s a part of their culture. Just to stand as a primary in the elections you have to show and prove your business acumen just as much as you have to show what you have done in your community.
There is not a huge focus on that here, sometimes it marketed in the wrong way and people then take offence to it. I heard mixed views of The Big Society, some people think that it is brilliant and other people say that it is the government trying to get other people to do their job for free.
Again I think that’s because the relationship between the people and our public servants isn’t as good as what it could be.
How could someone get involved with Bite the Ballot?
We are working hard to try and think of how we can take someone on this journey with us. The first port of call is registering to vote, although that doesn’t involve you with Bite the Ballot, that definitely involves you in the political arena and your influence starts straight away. So from 16 my plea to anyone is to just register, look into it and ask the questions that you feel passionate about.
From Bite the Ballot’s perceptive we are trying to create opportunities where we will start to do more things with Rock the Vote, we are going to look for volunteers in key areas to come out and be a part of those experiences. There are areas on the website where people can sign up and become parts of the campaign so we can keep them up to date, but equally we want to share our resources with people who want to start their own things in their community, this can be school groups, this can business, if you feel passionate we would love to say ‘this is how we run a registration rally, go for it yourself’
We often put events on our site and social networks to come into Westminster or Ministry of Sound or wherever we might be hosting them. Come and get involved, bring your friends. Whatever you experience, whether it’s through us or something else, talk about it, spread the conversation.
I want to delve a bit into your own career. I think that it is fair to say that you have not had a normal nine to five career, after doing a load of jobs when you left school, you graduated from Southampton with a BA Honours in Business Management and Finance, so what did you take what did you learn from your time there?
First of all it was a fantastic three years, I was one of the only people from my group of friends from south-east London to go to university. It meant that I left my comfort zone and I met people with different interests and hobbies and it open my mind to how difference is celebrated.
The course itself was fantastic, the theories and principles behind business management are about leadership, commutation, motivation but I quickly realised when I entered the banking world that it is all clouded over and wrapped in a blanket of greed where people don’t matter.
That really frustrated me, so I quit, dressed as Scooby Doo. I was raising money for Children in Need at the time and raised £500.I then walked around the bank and handed in my resignation.
As you know I travelled around the world for a year and really found myself. Me and my best friend had so many great experiences. It wasn’t about spending money; it was about going to places where you just saw people in their environment without the pressures of the western world. No one was worrying about their trainers or televisions or technology. As much as technology can be great and should be celebrated, the pressures that it puts on people can often be over looked and we visited so many countries where it was just naturally beautiful.
You’ve just mentioned that you have done a bit of traveling, so where did you go and what did you learn?
Are you ready for this one? I can reel this off; I went from to London to India where we travel for two months, we went straight up to Tri Nagar, stayed in the Himalayan Mountains on a house boat, then we went through Rajasthan, celebrated the festival of holy in Jaipur then we went down south to Goa.
You really can’t believe that it is all India; there are so many parts, from snow to the hustle and bustle of busy cities, sharing roads with Chicken, Camels and Cows but then you go south to Goa and it’s a tropical paradise.
Then we went to Singapore traveling overland through Malaysia stopping off at a little island call Palau Tiomen. We went in to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Then Flew into Australia, went to New Zealand, then flew around to Hawaii, San Francisco went on into Utah, snowboarded in salt lake city, stopped by in San Diego before having a little bit of time in Miami, flew on to Costa Rica, overland through El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico City.
We then flew into Argentina onto Sao Palo and then turned 24 during the Rio Carnival. But the thing is we did it all on a shoe string budget. We paid upfront for our flights which was about £2000, but other than that it was about building relationships, a little bit of hitch-hiking. We would walk around a city and look at each other and say “We have had a good day, shall we treat ourselves” “Yeah, do you fancy a can of coke.” We really embraced everything; we eat where the locals eat.
What did I learn? Well I guess I learned what life was really about.
The furthest that I have gone is Swansea. You have been compared to a young Michael Cain, you’ve worked in L.A. Acting and politics seem worlds away, so what can the two learn from each other?
I think that there are a lot of similarities between acting and politics. I sometimes watch people talking about politics and wonder if they actually mean what they are saying. Sometimes I think that some people can create characters and for me when you act, if you truly embrace a character, you need to become that character and I still go to a weekly acting workshop and it’s fantastic, they really get me to embrace a character, become them, think like them, feel like them, develop a backstory.
I have to become that character, if you’re really going to become a politician you have to become politician. When you act, you have to relate a character to something in your own life. I think the best politicians can relate their own life to the decisions that they have to make, and if they can’t relate to decision, they should reach out to the people they represents and say “this is a decision that is coming up, how does it affect you?”