It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet. There are still significant concerns about resurgent cases in Western Europe and whether it will reach the UK in the summer. Despite this continued uncertainty, some joy has spread around the country as grassroots sports resumes and some travel restrictions are lifted. Amongst the mixture of relief, grief and hope caused by the pandemic, there is the opportunity and desire for real change.
Various organisations from across Britain are calling for drastic changes in the post-COVID era. These think tanks, charities and other organisations are arguing that the British government must address deep regional, racial and economic inequalities and injustices in areas such as health, housing and education. This mood of change can and should be applied to transforming the way young people engage with politics, too. Let’s be clear: inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic profoundly impact young people. Increased political engagement is not a solution to these problems, it is a strategy through which to find more robust, legitimate and effective solutions.
It is becoming widely accepted by those concerned with the health of British democracy that for the perceived legitimacy of Government to be improved, citizens must be more engaged in democratic process. Political engagement refers to a broadly defined set of positive thoughts and feelings an individual may hold towards the political process, spanning from MPs, the Government or elections. To be politically engaged, an individual need not feel positively about all of these things, but must feel positive enough to see the political process as legitimate and worthy of participating in.
Increased political engagement brings real, lasting benefits to young people’s lives. It can give them a greater sense of purpose and confidence in themselves, it can improve their creativity, self-esteem and aspirations. Political engagement can crucially increase the amount that young people feel of value to their community and society. Political engagement cannot be reduced to voting, nor can it be reduced to attending a protest. No single way of engaging in politics will be right for every young person. What must be encouraged is to celebrate political engagement that is already being done and make bold steps to address the concerns of young people who are distrustful, cynical or apathetic towards the democratic process.
Uneven political engagement reflects socio-economic inequalities that we see in many other parts of society. It has been labelled the ‘democratic divide’, whereby individuals from middle-class backgrounds, males and those with more educational qualifications are more likely to be engaged with politics. On the other hand, those from lower-income or working-class backgrounds, women and those with fewer educational qualifications are less likely to be engaged.
Political engagement cannot be a privilege for advantaged groups in society. Bridging the democratic divide means understanding why economically advantaged young people are more likely to participate than those young people from lower-income families. For young people from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds barriers to political disengagement exist. These may be cultural – some young people may have come from communities that have a legitimate and justified suspicion or cynicism towards political or institutions and processes. These barriers may be economic – some young people may have less access to digital technologies that can be vital to youth participation, or less leisure time if they have more caring or financial responsibilities than some of their peers. Lastly, these barriers to participation may be personal – young people may not feel confident or knowledgeable enough to engage with politics. These are the young people that should be prioritised.
One major step in the right direction has been the establishment of the recent All Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy (APPG), which provides a forum for politicians and civil society actors from across the political spectrum to discuss and plan how to make political literacy and engagement a reality for young people across Britain. These ideas must be shared with young people of all backgrounds in all parts of the country if we are to transform political engagement in the post-COVID era.