by Edita Jatulyte, our ambassador for the United Kingdom.
The 2015 general elections in the United Kingdom to be held on 7 May are shaping to be the most uncertain elections in a generation. Long gone are the days when voters had to choose between the Labour and the Conservative parties with the third option being Liberal Democrats – today’s spectrum includes such parties as the Greens or the UK Independence Party. With political manifestos varying from finding measures to tackle unemployment, to proposals for the UK to leave the European Union, the big question remains – what’s in it for the youth?
For many years negligence of youth in the political arena has been considered to be an issue, however little has been done to improve the situation. Moreover, the apathy appeared to be mutual as constantly declining turnout numbers suggested growing democratic deficit. Between 1979 and 2005 the turnout of 18-24 year old voters dropped from 62.5% to 38.2% indicating that a great part of young Brits remained under represented. Only before the 2010 general elections major parties embraced the fact that the Youth Vote was crucial and thus started adjusting their manifestos accordingly. While the Conservatives suggested minor alterations to their social policy, the Liberal Democrats decided to opt for the “go big or go home” approach that led to various promises, such as the famous pledge made by the party leader Nick Clegg not to increase higher education fees. As the election results illustrated, the pledge did not go unnoticed and the Lib Dems received significant support from the young generation. Unfortunately both for the party and its voters, the Lib Dems were not able to deliver their promise and after the election the fee for undergraduate courses in the UK rose from £3,290 to up to £9,000. Despite public apology issued in September 2012, the Lib Dems did not manage to recover from the forfeit and their numbers in the polls had been significantly dropping ever since.
Such turn of events uncovered three major observations – firstly, demand for reform among the youth was high; secondly, the youth insisted on having an accountable government; and finally, a great share of the Youth Vote was now up for grabs. According to Britain’s cross-party think tank Demos, the top concerns for young people are living costs, affordable housing, education, unemployment and health. Considering that, at the moment the Labour is in a relatively more favorable position than any other party because their political manifesto includes a number of reforms that tackle mentioned sectors. While the Torries remain faithful to their traditional platform, the Labour suggests changes in the labour market, intends to bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and pledges to ban unpaid internships that last for longer than four weeks. The manifesto seems to encompass everything that the youth have ever wanted; however, each proposal has its own flaw. For instance, the party claims that the immigration bill will require large firms to take on apprentices every time they take on a worker outside the EU in order to benefit the British youth. According to the party leader Ed Miliband, such proposal would embrace “a one in, one trained up” policy in contrast to the government’s “one in, one out” mantra. However, based on the EU law there can be no requirement for the apprenticeships set up by British firms to go to British nationals, therefore, the scheme will need to be open to the EU citizens. Considering housing, the Labour has not yet specified to what extent councils borrowing powers would be extended, thus the implementation part of the project remains doubtful. Finally, the pledge regarding unpaid internships appears to gain increasing support from both left and right-wing voters; however, it still carries a possibility of the Lib Dem 2010 education pledge fiasco. Subsequently, while the Labour manifesto seems to be tailor-made for the youth, the job remains only half-done.
Another issue that has particularly important consequences for the youth is the UK membership of the EU. In January 2013 the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that if the Torries won an outright majority in the May general election, the party would renegotiate terms of UK membership of the EU and would organize an in/out referendum on British membership of the Union. The proposal was reiterated by the UK Independence Party that called for an “immediate” referendum. In the meantime, the Labour claims that it will consider referendum if the UK is asked to transfer more power to the EU, however, if the Labour gets the majority, the referendum remains unlikely. Such approach is supported by the Liberal Democrats who claim that only “significant” transfer of powers will invoke referendum. According to recent polls, the public opinion remains highly divided on the question of British membership with around 40% in favor of withdrawal, 40% in favor of staying in the EU, and 20% being undecided. Studies show that young people are significantly more pro-EU than older citizens. The result comes from the fact that the youth are more capable to benefit from such EU policies as facilitated social mobility and cultural exchange, in this way making a significant impact on their perception of the EU. Moreover, increasing number of young people consider themselves to be European, thus embracing global identity. Subsequently, the outcome of the election will have a direct impact on the future of the young generation, which gives an unprecedented opportunity for the young voters to decide their own prospects.
As a result, the 2015 general election gives more electoral power to the youth than ever before. However, with great power comes great responsibility – the youth need to prove that it cares about its own future, and is ready to contribute to the process of policy making. Starting with high turnout the young generation has an opportunity to become genuinely vocal and to demonstrate that the youth are willing and capable to fully exploit their rights.
Featured photo: Union Jack by Karen Arnold