How do we engage young people in politics? Come on, stop fibbing

PUBLISHED: 15:09 11 November 2013 | UPDATED: 15:09 11 November 2013




If little ones can tell right from wrong, it should be no surprise when youngsters question the behaviour of our leaders and turn their backs on politics

Political parties spend a fortune every year on Think Tanks to come up with a solution to this question: “How do we engage young people in politics?” If they can just get a swathe of enthusiastic young voters on board, winning elections would be easy, they think. So, why can’t they?

My five-year-old is fascinated by government, and asks questions every day about running a country. When I have Prime Minister’s Questions on TV, she is intrigued by what she – somewhat aptly – calls the ‘Houses of Argument’. She wants to know if they ever reach agreement, “because if they can’t, then what’s the point in them bickering all day, when they could be doing something useful?”

Cynicism starts early these days, and I love that she is challenging the process by which MPs act out the mechanics of democracy. For sometimes even I feel it is ‘acting out’ rather than delivering.

When Molly was two, the Labour government announced plans for a high speed rail link between London and Scotland which, I immediately noted, was routed close to our rural idyll in the Chilterns. I have no qualms about being labelled a NIMBY, for if you can’t protect your environment, a place you’ve invested your life’s savings and emotional energy in, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs. However, my arguments against this project are bigger than ‘don’t route it through an AONB’ (which is nevertheless a primary objection if it is to proceed). A growing army of dissenters feels the ever-escalating budget is too high a price for infrastructure that will be used by a minority of wealthy business people. If money is available, it should be invested in digital communications, with high-speed broadband and 4G networks accessible to every home.

At a time when education and healthcare budgets are squeezed, and our national balance sheet is ever deeper in debt, it doesn’t take an economic analyst to point out that we can’t afford a shiny new train set. I’d like to replace my aged car with a newer higher-spec model, but must prioritise my outgoings.

When Patrick McLoughlin, the latest in a line of Transport Secretaries burdened with justifying this White Elephant wheeled out a KPMG report recently, my daughter watched with me and summed up the feelings of many.

“Shouldn’t he just be honest, mummy, and admit that he’s wrong? It’s better to say it now, because people won’t be as cross with him as they will be if spends all our money, and then he says he got it wrong. It’s like a child making up a story because they think that means they won’t get found out.”

When virtually every poll suggests the majority of voters and business leaders are now against HS2, my daughter’s understanding of what a democracy stands for is undermined. Her faith in politicians has been crushed. All this at an age when kids should be playing with train sets rather than worrying about real ones that will saddle their generation with ever-more debt and cause irrevocable damage to the landscape that is the backdrop to their childhood and the future for their children.

Little wonder young people have no respect for the parliamentary process, and our politicians are held with such contempt. If Conservative Central Office wants to invest some of its cash on another Think Tank on engaging young people, I highly recommend commissioning the five year-old who lives at the top of our stairs to draft a report.

Lessons in life

My husband, a press photographer, flew to Lebanon to document the plight of Syrian refugees living there in tented camps. In one of our regular Skype chats, he described to Molly how he’d been to visit children who’d had to run away from their homes, and leave all their friends and toys behind. He showed her a photograph of a little girl of a similar age, surrounded by the dust and destitution that comes with such tragic upheaval. We talked about how lucky we are to live in a safe place.

After a number of Paxman-esque questions, grilling her parent panel about dictatorships, it wasn’t long before she came up with her take on Syria. “That leader isn’t very good at his job is he?” she concluded. “It’s his job to protect people in his land, not hurt them. You have to show people what is right and wrong. I don’t understand why other kind leaders, like Queen Elizabeth and David Cameron and President Obama don’t call him and teach him how to be better at his job. Maybe he just hasn’t been taught how to do it.”

Simple. I sometimes wonder whether the world should be run by Year One kids.

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