On the 27th of May I visited Sir Bob Russell’s offices in Colchester in order to gauge my local MP’s opinion on youth participation in politics and the European Union. Most of my friends had no idea what the European Parliament election was all about, and the small 34% turnout included a tiny minority of 18-25-year-old voters. Following this, and the loss of all but one Liberal Democrat MEP, I had to know what he thought.

He began by offering an example of a young person who has become very involved in politics: Jessica Scott-Boutell, a 19-year-old elected in the Colchester local council elections. Whilst this defiance of the trend is heartening, Sir Bob described the poverty of political engagement from young people as “disturbing”. Although the majority of young people aren’t interested in politics, the “good news” is that those who do are really interested. It’s a shame that it’s such an underwhelming minority. He also expressed that a “big worry” for political parties is the disengagement of young people from the democratic process across much of the Western world.

Although a decline in political interest amongst young people is no shock, Sir Bob contrasted the democratic deficit in the UK with situations such as those in Ukraine, where citizens desperately wanted to vote, a democratic Russia that is really run by a “thug regime”, and South Africa, where citizens walk miles and queue for hours in order to cast their vote. It is apparent that, across the world, people who are not able to vote are desperate to, and people who are able to vote, especially those in the western world, do not bother to. Indeed, some ex-Communist countries, such as Poland, are arguably more democratic than the UK in terms of higher turnout at general elections, which made the disengagement in Britain seem even more of an issue.

However, Sir Bob did explain that the dissolution of interest in young people can no longer be tackled by MPs. “I don’t know what it is I can do”, he said, “I am high profile, I put out literature, I have an advice bureau for constituents, people know where I am, I do an 80-hour week, I meet people like yourself”. It seems that establishment parties haven’t engaged enough with young people, and now promotion of political matters has fallen to younger people who have a keen interest in politics.

Among other solutions to a disengaged youth population, lowering the voting age is the most frequently discussed. Sir Bob agreed that the voting age should be lowered to sixteen, but said this with the contradiction that many young people over the age of eighteen do not exercise their vote, yet he takes the view that “those who wish to exercise their vote shouldn’t be stopped from doing so because of those who don’t”. Interestingly, Sir Bob did not vote in a General Election until he was nearly twenty-eight years old, by which time he was married with three children, due to circumstantial factors. Young people have the choice of whether they exercise their vote, and those who do have a keen interest in politics should not be pigeonholed with those who do not, especially because a lower voting age would promote an early habit of voting.

Colchester is a garrison town, and in his experience Sir Bob has “met lots of former military people, both men and women, who have a greater interest and awareness of what politics is all about than perhaps their civilian contemporaries”. He attributed this trend to their job: travelling around the world encouraging democracy in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. An analogy can be drawn between the hands-on knowledge of politics that members of the armed forces gain and the need for better political education in schools. It could be argued that the voting age should not be lowered due to an ignorant younger generation who cannot make informed decisions when voting. In schools across the UK, pupils are taught about religion and citizenship as a compulsory aspect of education. Why is politics not seen as vital knowledge? Incorporating politics into education would raise more insightful voters who will not wish to avoid the topic altogether.

I mentioned Nick Robinson’s Live from Downing Street and the fact that Robinson’s interest in politics stemmed from listening to BBC radio, which was almost the only daily media output at that time apart from newspapers. I asked Sir Bob whether diverse media enhanced political awareness; he replied that “nobody should rely on the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, or The Sun as being the only vehicle to understand what’s going on in public life, because if so you would think that the Romanians are responsible for all this country’s ills”. According to Mr Russell, the BBC is the best way to find out what’s going on, in conjunction with “quality newspapers that tell the full story”.

Finally, I questioned Sir Bob on the recent European Parliament elections. The UKIP-bashing began. While Sir Bob said that he was “disappointed” with the loss of all but one Lib Dem MEP, what worries him is “the nationalistic rise that UKIP promotes [which claims that] ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is the problem”, and the leadership of UKIP which “echoes of the 1930s”. According to Sir Bob, young people are far more relaxed about the movements of people, and most immigrants in UK are hard-working net contributors. “We’ve got more home-grown scroungers” he stated.

Sir Bob made the case that if we left the EU, all of  the social benefits that two million retired British people have in Europe would end, and many would have to come back to the UK – putting more strain on our public services. “The reality is that the people who have to make the hard-nosed decisions of what is in the best interest of the British people […] are of the view that Britain’s best economic interests are within the EU”. However, he acknowledged that the EU’s mandate depends on public support. “There’s a hell of a battle here to convince people that it’s in our country’s interest to be in the European Union”.

In the run up to the 2015 General Election, it is increasingly important to inspire an interest in young people, or the democratic deficit and unrepresentative nature of UK politics will only continue.

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