Co-written by Simon Fell MP (Conservative Party) & Lord Iain McNicol (Labour Party) as Co-Chairs of the APPG on Political Literacy

The term ‘political literacy’ refers to a citizen’s understanding of the political systems which govern their society, from the values that underpin them, to the practical steps needed to participate. The forthcoming All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Literacy will bring together parliamentarians from across the political spectrum to shed light on the current under-provision of political literacy in the British education system, and drive support for more comprehensive political literacy education. As co-Chairs from differing parties, we are looking forward to working with one another on political literacy, an issue that transcends party politics, impacting all of us and even the stability and longevity of our democracy. If recent events in the United States have taught us anything, it is that democracy is not to be taken for granted, we must all work together to protect it.

The democratic landscape has changed rapidly in the last few decades. In the UK, an overall decline in conventional political participation and engagement has been observed. In 2020, it was revealed that global youth dissatisfaction with democracy was at an all-time high around the world. Young people do not display the same ideological commitment to democracy that their parents did. Near universal access to the internet and social media has meant that most citizens are constantly bombarded with information, much of which is either untrue or heavily biased. Our education system has not yet caught up with this new phenomenon: ‘only 2% of children have the critical literacy skills they need to tell if a news story is real or fake’. This has profound implications for our democratic processes.

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has amplified and accelerated these phenomena. The pandemic has had profound and devastating effects on all of our lives, and young people have faced enormous disruption. The closure of schools, cancellation of public exams, and reduced provision of youth services, all have serious consequences for the disenfranchisement and alienation of young people. The gap in electoral turnout levels between 18-24 year olds and those aged over 55 was already higher in the UK than in any other liberal democracy, and this is likely to increase as young people face more isolation and deprivation. High levels of youth unemployment may also lead to reduced political participation and engagement. A 2020 report by the Centre for the Future of Democracy found that countries with higher levels of wealth inequality experienced higher levels of dissatisfaction with democracy. Research has shown that the link between economic crisis and the growth of extremist politics are very often linked. However, as outlined in the 2018 report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, political literacy is responsible for instilling and developing democratic attitudes amongst young people. As such, we strongly believe that now is the time to prioritise this issue. The recovery period that will follow this pandemic poses a monumental challenge, but also a profound opportunity to improve the skill set of the nation’s electorate to deal with these crises and their consequences in the future.

From climate issues to the protests around racial injustice over the summer, it is clear young people are very politically engaged. It is our duty as legislators to ensure they have access to a toolkit of skills to reinforce and harness this passion with a comprehensive understanding of our governance systems. Incorporating political literacy (which includes media literacy) and ensuring young people have access to accurate information regarding politics, will equip them to make reasoned, informed decisions that benefit our society and build a brighter future by strengthening our democratic culture.

Crucially, we know that young people want to learn about politics. Shout Out UK, this APPG’s secretariat, surveyed 906 young people in the academic year 2019/2020 and found that 71.9% wanted to be taught political literacy in school. The exponential rise of political polarisation in modern times, mandates the pursuit of a structural shift in our education system to ensure that future voters are informed, active citizens.

For these reasons, we are proud to lead the new APPG on Political Literacy. The ultimate goal will be to ensure that all young people become politically literate by the time they finish their secondary education. By pulling together the expertise and interest of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, as well as consulting academic experts, third-sector organisations, and most importantly, young people and teachers themselves, we will seek to bolster the strength of our societal democratic culture and commitment through this new APPG.

The nature of democracy demands a politically literate population, and as the APPG on Political Literacy’s Co-Chairs, we are committed to ensuring the electorate of the future is provided with a stable foundation of political literacy in order to tackle the challenges ahead of us all.

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