Will young people ever vote again for the Tories or the Lib Dems? The Cardiff iStudent debate
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A rainy evening last week in the Welsh capital heralded the first iStudent debate chaired by Oliver Duff, the editor of i. He was joined on the panel by NUS president Toni Pearce, Amol Rajan, editor of The Independent, and Lisa Markwell, editor of The Independent on Sunday, to discuss politics, growing disillusionment and fee hikes.
According to the overwhelming majority of students at the debate in the National Museum Cardiff, young people will vote again for the parties that have saddled them with the deadweight of an ever growing student debt. Only 26 students claimed that young people would never again vote Lib Dem or Tory. In a climate of increasing hostility and suspicion felt towards politicians across all parties, is this a surprising result?
The heated debate rapidly veered towards the keen sense of betrayal still felt amongst the student population in the aftermath of the much resented tripling of student fees under the coalition government. While Ben Chu, the economics editor at The Independent, argued that they were a “necessary evil” to strengthen a struggling education system, many students were vocal in their support of NUS president Toni Pearce’s frustration at rising fees and mounting debt for young people:
“When politicians expose themselves as liars it massively undermines people’s faith in politics. You can’t get away from the fact that the Lib Dems won a lot of votes from young people by promising to vote against a rise in tuition fees and then they lied about it.”
This was met with uproarious applause and confirmed a sense of detachment and alienation from the cloistered world of Westminster. In response to the tangible feeling of disappointment with the coalition, Amol Rajan, the editor of The Independent, emphasised the importance of engaging with the system rather than prompting a revolution à la Russell Brand.
“Young people need to engage with the system and vote, not try and take it down.
“You should be ashamed of yourself if you’re not going to vote. Generations of men, women and children have died for the vote.”
However, Rajan’s argument was quickly countered by Cardiff student Grace Barr who admitted being unsure as to whether she would vote in the next election. The French and law student highlighted the need for politicians to engage young votes and most importantly, to speak a “language that they understand.”
She spoke of her home constituency, a deprived area of south Birmingham, and the growing gap between decisions taken in Westminster and the everyday struggle of her friends.
“When you’re struggling for food, it seems like a luxury to vote. It’s us and them.
“Their interests aren’t ‘Should we be in in Europe?’ They want to know about policies that affect them. Politics needs to be brought back to the people.”
This wider disillusionment felt at the disparity between a political class sheltered from these pressing concerns and a struggling electorate prompted discussions about how to attract young people to politics.
Lisa Markwell, the editor of The Independent on Sunday, called for better representation for the younger voter demographic:
“When we look at politics today, you don’t see anyone who looks or sounds like you.”
Markwell pointed to the role of social media as a means to exert pressure on parties disconnected with their constituencies:
“You have more power than you realise… politicians fear social media. So much has come through social media, if that’s a method into politics, then the party that gets that will have the support of young people.”
However, in spite of the animated nature of the debate and the impassioned calls made for “politics to be brought back to the people”, as argued by student Grace Barr, the numerous empty seats in the National Museum testified to the endemic levels of political fatigue in young voters.
In the face of frustration with an unfavourable economy and parties whose policies have failed to address young people's concerns, we must remember that, in the words of Ben Chu, “politics is the way you change things and you need to get involved.”
There will be more student debates across the UK led by The i. The next stop on the tour is Manchester on 11th March.