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You’re just a punch-bag for the Coalition! January 10, 2012

Posted by AaronPorter in Uncategorized.
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Aaron Porter, former NUS President and regular OpinionPanel blogger, asks whether savage cuts to young people’s services might be the result of young people failing to engage in politics.


Young people seem to be bearing the brunt of government cuts. Photo by asplosh

Over the last few years, young people could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been the butt of a series of damaging government policies. The recent recession has seen youth unemployment soar to over 1 million, there are as many as 80 applicants for every graduate position, the Educational Maintenance Allowance has been scrapped, as has the Future Jobs Fund and the AimHigher programme. In the last 7 years we have seen tuition fees treble twice, first by Labour in 2005 and then more recently by the Coalition – despite an explicit promise by the Liberal Democrats that they would vote against any increase whatsoever.

The government will undoubtedly turn to the deficit as the explanation for their recent decisions to take the axe to many of the services young people have relied on. But cynics might claim that a lack of political engagement from young people could be the reason behind these particularly acute measures. If you consider the relatively small amounts of money that the government have saved in scrapping initiatives like the EMA and AimHigher, and compare that with similar amounts of money spent on schemes benefiting pensioners, such as free bus passes and the Winter Fuel allowance (both of which are not means tested), it poses the question why young people appear to have consistently taken the hit to the benefit of others in society.

So, are young people really doing enough to engage with politics? A quick analysis of voting statistics shows that when it comes to elections they clearly are not. In the 2005 general election, only 37% of 18 – 24 year olds turned out to vote. Whilst that figure rose to around 44% in the 2010 general election, in part due to a more focussed drive to register young voters, it still looks pretty paltry when you compare that to the 76% of over-65-year-olds who voted. Faced with difficult decisions on spending, the government appear to have made some crude political calculations and decided that spending cuts for pensioners would cost them more votes than spending cuts for young people. Politically speaking, they are probably right.

So why is it that young people are voting in such small numbers, and what can be done to rectify it? Firstly, it’s worth noting that this is an historic trend. It’s not just the under 25s of recent years that are voting in lower numbers; the under 25s have tended to turnout in much smaller numbers than their elder counterparts for decades.

As with many things, education clearly has to be at the heart of the solution. A number of commissions and studies looking at the issue of young people’s engagement with politics have flagged up how citizenship education could be improved in school to stress the importance of voting, and how it can help influence issues like employment, benefits, taxation and services. Interestingly, in the run-up to the 2010 election, research by YouGov and the Social Market Foundation into how people develop voting habits has found that those who are old enough to vote while still at school are far more likely to vote again than those who have to wait until their 20s for their first chance. In the 2001 election, for example, turnout among 27-year-olds was 49%, compared with 65% among 28-year-olds who had been old enough to vote in the 1992 election.

The campaign behind lowering the voting age to 16 has also gained momentum. There are some who feel that giving 16-year-olds the chance to vote will help to drive up youth participation overall by opening up the political process to them a little earlier. Particularly to combat the fact there are large numbers of 16 and 17 year olds who feel disenfranchised by being prevented from voting, especially when you consider they are old enough to pay taxes, get married, have sex and even die for their country. But others claim that 16 is too young, that they may not have had the time to properly form an opinion about voting and should therefore continue to wait until they are 18. At present, Austria is the only country in Europe that has introduced votes at 16.

At the end of 2011, analysis from credit information firm Experian found a worrying trend with the number of young people even registered to vote. According to their figures, only 520,000 who had turned 18 were registered, which is around 55% of those eligible. Yet this compares with an estimated 1.05m 18 year olds with Facebook accounts. It led to the understandably striking headlines that twice as many 18-year-olds had Facebook accounts, compared to being registered to vote.

So should voting be compulsory? In Australia this is the system they have, where all citizens above the age of 18 have to be registered to vote and fines are administered for those who do not vote. Whilst this unsurprisingly leads to higher voter turnout, I remain unconvinced that any compulsory system would really lead to greater genuine engagement.

There is proof that technology could provide the solution for encouraging greater numbers of young people to engage with politics, though. It is not that they aren’t interested in expressing an opinion, it’s just a feeling that the debate does not take place in a medium in which they feel it should. A lot is made of the fact that millions of people, huge numbers of them under the age of 25, are prepared not just to express an opinion but also to vote on a weekly basis for programmes like the X Factor and Big Brother. But in part this is because that vote can be made with the click of a button or a text message. Considering issues beyond reality TV talent contests, it was interesting to note that the Electoral Commission website www.aboutmyvote.co.uk had 1.8m visits around the last general election, nearly half of which came from 18 – 24-year-olds.

Whilst security and the ability to ensure that those eligible individuals are only able to vote once needs to be fundamental in any electoral system, surely it should not be beyond the realms of possibility for there to be proper consideration given to online voting for national ballots.

We shouldn’t ignore the fact that young people are simply not voting in great enough numbers. The real solution lies in education, technology and a change in culture: a huge shift in attitude toward voting and politics in general is needed to really start get young people punching above their weight, rather than consistently appearing to be the punch-bag for difficult political decisions.

Left Foot Forward, Sun 16th October: Why are the coalition so ageist? October 16, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in Left Foot Forward.
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Why are the coalition so ageist?


With the backdrop of the compulsory retirement age being removed, a move many support although it may well make entry into the labour market for the under-30s tougher, the contrast between the treatment of young and old couldn’t be more stark, writes former NUS president Aaron Porter

As public spending is reined in under the guise of deficit reduction, choking off growth and forcing up unemployment, the government have boxed themselves into a corner forced to make even tougher decisions than they otherwise would need to.


And when it comes to difficult decisions, comparing the fate of young and old makes for painful analysis.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the trebling of tuition fees, youth unemployment on the verge of breaking one million and the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance which was a vital lifeline of up to £30 per week for the poorest students in college.

Less attention has been given to the cutting of Connexions, the abolition of the Future Jobs Fund or the removal of funding for over-25s wanting to get GCSEs and A levels. All of which are still disgraceful decisions on the part of government, largely self-defeating in terms of the cost to the economy and almost entirely an attack on the poorest groups and the much talked about ‘squeezed middle’.

The removal of funding for over-25s wanting to take GCSEs and A levels is particularly pernicious, as it is predominantly a lifeline for those failed by the school system, and often seeking a second chance to pick up vital qualifications in maths, English, IT and science to give them a chance of either going onto college or attempting to get a foothold on the jobs market. It is rarely a course in flower arranging or fine art, as the government would like to make out.

Yet as young people are coming under a sustained attack from this government, with little sign of improvement in the foreseeable future, I can’t help contrast this with the political choices the government have frankly ignored elsewhere.

As one means tested benefit is removed in the form of the EMA on the dodgy and frankly manipulated evidence on the part of government, similar benefits for the over 65s remain completely untouched, whether that’s free bus passes, the winter fuel allowance or TV licences.

Let me make it clear, I am not advocating that the mass removal of these vital lifelines for many pensioners: that really would give credibility to baseless accusations that I’m a “Tory”. But I do think it’s both right and sensible to look at whether it is fair that over-65s on incomes of say £50,000 a year, to still receive state support – that’s not being a Tory, that’s looking at how to direct money to those who need it most.

I will continue to make the case for certain universal benefits such as the National Health Service and child benefit, but at a time of financial belt-tightening, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me that certain benefits given to the wealthiest over-65s hasn’t been given more attention,in the same way that student support is rightly targeted toward those who need it most.

The money saved from over 65s with such a suggestion would probably only run into the tens of millions, but when £250m can be found for another round of bin collections, incidentally a very similar amount that was taken away from the EMA, I am certain that the amount of money saved from over 65s could be put to better use elsewhere in the economy.


Questions will rightly be asked about whether the cost of means testing benefits such as the winter fuel allowance aren’t more expensive than simply distributing it to everyone in a particular age-range. But if this is really the case, I would ask why the same argument wasn’t afforded to the very same people advocating the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance.

I have chosen to pick this question, although difficult, because it is a serious one.

Of course, the political reality that underpins this is actually a question of political arithmetic. It doesn’t take a great deal of electoral analysis to show that saving £50m from under 25s comes at a much smaller political cost than a similar saving from over 65s. But there comes a point, when the cumulative impact of a series of unfair and regressive decisions toward one age group just becomes too destabilising.

I remain convinced that this coalition give young people very little reason to be optimistic about the future.

So we need to make our arguments in a variety of ways. Recent moves to expose tax evasion by major corporations is long overdue and welcome, as is questioning the appropriateness of significant one-off investments such as Trident, particularly as solutions to these problems are actually a great deal more complex than the narrow debate that is often played out in the press, or indeed as I have been used to in student meetings.

I realise this debate is an uncomfortable one, but seen in a broader context of Generation Y failing to get onto the housing ladder, leaving university with spiralling debt, facing questions about the sustainability of energy and the climate more generally, and probably not entitled to retire until our 70s with pensions increasingly under threat.

It isn’t just a case that the coalition are ageist, but their consistent attacks on young people destabilise the economy and society.