Political disengagement amongst young people has been a problem for a while. In a post-expenses, post-Savile, post-phone hacking age, many established institutions are mistrusted, political parties most of all. Even the Lib Dems, who rode into coalition on the young vote, are in the doghouse after abandoning their tuition fees pledge. Younger people are incredibly interested in political issues and are hungry to find out more. Sadly, many don’t because they’re scared of asking the wrong thing or looking stupid – no surprise given the combative nature of UK politics. It’s really important to address those fears head on, which is why I hope Ask Amy can be a useful tool to hundreds of young people across the country in the run up to the general election.
Ask Amy is a new app aimed at engaging young voters with politics. The Siri/WhatsApp-style tool gives short, impartial answers to questions about politics and is specifically designed to be approachable, encouraging users to find out as much as possible and inform them to vote with confidence at the General Election. You can download it from the Android store or access it online from any mobile device at www.askamy.net.
Ask Amy is very much a living work in progress. Though she has over 4,500 questions and answers in her ‘memory’, if she doesn’t know the answer to your question, she’ll fess up and forward it onto the team who will add the question and answer to her live and evolving information bank.
Ed Miliband’s answer to the young-people-engagement question is votes at 16. Voting is, of course, important – less than half the people in their twenties and below voted at the 2010 General Election. That’s not just a problem for now: research shows voting is a habit you need to pick up while you’re young or you’re likely never to learn it. “Older people vote today” doesn’t necessarily mean “young people today will vote tomorrow” – the latter will be largely determined by people’s experiences when they are young.
Offering votes to 16-year-olds does open the door to politics at a younger age. But what if you don’t want to enter? Or what if you’re one of the 17 million young Brits who feel shut out? We also need to think bigger – because surely we want young people engaged in politics between elections too. I know I do.
One of the answers, I feel, lies in digging deeper to address the reality, rather than the myth, of young people’s political engagement.
The story goes that young people mostly aren’t interested. But lack of engagement doesn’t equal lack of interest. It may surprise you to learn that many young people today would in fact like to get engaged: more than 60 per cent – three in every five – of 25-34 year olds actually want to know more about politics… but they don’t know where to start.
A number of people get interested in politics when, after studying the subject at A-level, yet so many people don’t get that introduction to the political world. For many young people, they didn’t learn about it from parents or school, their friends don’t know about politics either and the media often don’t reach them. The problem isn’t “I don’t care about politics” but “I don’t have anyone to ask about politics”.
How do we start to address that? Well, where do our generation turn when we want to change anything? Increasingly, it’s online. You can laugh all you like about things like the ice bucket challenge (and that’s ok – it was meant to be funny), but, using digital tools is becoming increasingly important. We can topple governments too – look at the Arab Spring where young people using Twitter and Facebook played such a key role. Isn’t it time we created more of a young digital revolution in British politics?
I’ve worked with a group called ‘No One Ever Told Me About Politics’ to develop an exciting new solution to bridge the information gap for younger people: it’s called Ask Amy. It’s a new app that makes finding out about politics as easy as texting a friend, the first step to deeper engagement.
Amy is a virtual friend: you type a question about politics to her on your phone, she messages you right back. It’s like Siri for politics. For example, ask “What does my MP actually do?” and she’ll tell you in a simple way. She can even tell you who your MP is, show you a photo and help you email them, if you like. She’s a young, fresh voice who can explain politics in a new way, avoiding jargon and spin. She can even crack a joke or two!
This kind of digital resource is, of course, just one of the interventions we need if we are to engage more young people in politics. But, by dealing with the deficit, we can take a step in the right direction for the other one – that political knowledge deficit our generation faces.