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Do politics, or politics will do you

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Walk into a Starbucks near Oxford sStreet. What do you expect? Teens guzzling jugs of Frappucinos while texting and Snapchatting?

You’d be wrong. Or at least, you would have been the night before the general election. Instead of selfies and shopping bags all you could see were posters urging young people to vote, to “do politics, or politics will do you”.

And the mix of young people convened there were doing exactly that: discussing what matters most to this generation, what they care about, expressing their disappointments as well as their hopes and ideas – in other words, they were doing politics.

Their message was clear: “do not call us ‘generation apathy’”.

No doubt the internet, social media and even new developments such as conversational journalism have definitely expanded the availability of information and thus broadened potential opportunities for engagement. Many of us do sign and even launch petitions for causes we are passionate about; we do read and inform ourselves daily, and by not following traditional methods we engage in politics 2.0.

Yet two traditional but fundamental activities are unescapable in the political process: exchanging one’s views by discussing and, obviously, voting.

This is where Bite the Ballot, the organiser of the event that I attended and that brought together young people to discuss politics – and policies – in an informal and relaxed manner, comes in.

Whether you’re a slacktivist or simply apathetic, Bite the Ballot wants you to exchange your views with others, register to vote, and - crucially - vote. If coffeehouses and pubs used to be the political arena par excellence, why shouldn’t Starbucks become one as well? We’ve had all sorts of forums and spaces online, but time has come to talk about the issues that matter the most in person, either with our friends or other peers.

Bite the Ballot, a charity founded in 2010, organised several meet ups of this sort in the lead-up to the general election last Thursday. These 'DeCafes' (portmanteau for democracy and cafè) are the opportunity for young people, whether politics-freaks or novices, to discuss and learn about politics with a free drink offered by Starbucks.

In fact, since early on it has been Bite the Ballot’s strategy to partner up with brands, including the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Deliveroo, Unilad and even Tinder. In this way they hope to attract and engage young disenfranchised voters, and non-voters.

This bizarre general election seems to have, amongst other things, succeeded in mobilising young people more than in previous ones, and – while still waiting for official results to be published this week – 18-24 turnout seems also to have increased. As we have seen in the Brexit referendum and generally in elections lately, the demographic divides that decide election outcomes seem to have changed. Not class and social status anymore, other divides have emerged nonetheless: the urban-rural divide, as well as the young-old one.

 DeCafè at Starbucks

If the voice of the young hasn’t been heard enough until now, this is also because we haven’t made ourselves heard. With their initiatives and campaigns, with DeCafes organized all over the country, Bite the Ballot has attempted to tackle this.

Neither affiliated to a party, nor pushing for a specific set of ideals or policy, their cause is to fight the partially self-inflicted underrepresentation of the youth, by starting a conversation.

The participants of this conversation raised concerns about pressing issues such as housing, education, social care and the environment, but also more broadly about what kind of country we want to be living in and what sort of leader should be leading it. We discussed specific policy proposals, only finding out afterwards which manifesto they were part of.

 DeCafè at Starbucks /BiteTheBallot

You may care about tuition fees; I may want a country that is safe and gives young people like me opportunities. We may disagree on almost everything, but if both of us are disenfranchised from politics, we cannot achieve either of our aims without taking ownership of our future and the decisions that will shape it.

If the problems affect us, after all, why wouldn’t we want to have a say in the solutions? And this is the very mission of Bite the Ballot, “to empower young citizens to lead the change that they want to see within society.” If not now, then when?

Philipp Woelk contributed to this article.

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