News Analysis: Going after a generation's 'x'

Young people show increasing reluctance to vote; will a Parliament mailer really change anything?

Should he triumph in this week's Conservative leadership election, David Cameron will have his work cut out fulfilling his vow to 'switch on a whole new generation' to Toryism. The signs are the new generation has little interest in being switched on.

It is not just the Conservatives who have ground to make up among younger voters. The entire political process has fallen out of favour with the iPod generation. The problem has become so acute that MPs plan to have a guide to voting mailed to teenagers when they turn 18 (Marketing, 30 November).

The extent of young people's alienation from politics was clear at the General Election in May. The turnout among those aged 18-24 was 37%, according to MORI, compared with an average of 61% across all age groups.

A recent survey by youth marketing agency The Lounge provides further evidence, suggesting 36% of young people would willingly sell their vote, a majority of them for less than £100.

The trend has long-term implications. It is feared there are now large numbers of young adults for whom ignoring the ballot box has become a habit and that they will pass the habit on to their children.

Providing context

In this context, the guide to voting has been welcomed by all parties, as well as by the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society. The mailing was proposed by the House of Commons Modernisation Committee last year, with the suggestion that it should include instructions on registering to vote, a brief history of Parliament and details of the roles of elected officials.

A direct mail agency will be appointed shortly and, from mid-2006, 600,000 packs will be sent out each year.

It is significant that MPs chose direct mail as a way to tackle the problem.

At a time when state-funded advertising is routinely denounced as a waste of taxpayers' money, it is a recognition that marketing can be a crucial tool in changing society.

The question is whether Parliament has chosen the right strategy to win over young people. In particular, can it succeed in the stated aim of reaching those from marginal social and economic groups who feel alienated from the political process?

Nobody expects the guide to increase the turnout at elections on its own. However, some in the youth marketing industry believe it will struggle to have any impact at all. Sam Conniff, co-founder of Livity, an agency that has worked on both public- and private-sector youth projects, believes MPs will fail to reach their target audience through a mailing.

'If you are trying to contact vulnerable kids in marginalised areas, where literacy rates are low, direct mail is not the way to go,' he says.

'Unless it is really personal to them, it will be just another thing that drops through the door.'

For Conniff, a mailing from Parliament involves too much of a top-down approach, and is likely to connect only with the sort of people who are already interested in politics. Involving young people in the process, he says, is far more likely to get results. His agency recently conducted a project in Lambeth, South London, in which local kids came up with ideas for their own publication on the issues raised by the bombings on 7 July. The idea was subsequently taken up by three other councils.

Other projects may also prove more relevant than the mailing. The Electoral Commission has set up an outreach programme which works with partners such as the Prince's Trust to target hard-to-reach groups. Its focus is on helping youth workers and teachers promote political engagement.

Online efforts

Separately, the Hansard Society, which promotes the parliamentary system, recently launched a website designed by two London schoolchildren that addresses issues affecting teenagers (www.beingheard.org.uk). It also runs an online forum where young people can debate issues and even receive responses from MPs and ministers (www.headsup.org.uk).

The success of these projects may only become clear at the next election, yet there are already fears they may be limited in scope. While they can show teens why politics is important and explain how to get involved, they cannot enthuse them about going out to vote for a particular party.

James Layfield, managing director of The Lounge, believes one of the biggest problems is that young people cannot see a link between visiting a polling station and something changing - not least because there is now so little ideological divide between Labour and the Conservatives.

At the last election, this problem was exacerbated by the Iraq factor.

'The war has really devalued the voting process for young people,' he says. 'What value is there in voting when the government doesn't pay attention to what you are saying?'

A study by the Electoral Commission found that, despite their reluctance to vote, young people are still interested in political issues. It concluded that the low turnout was partly a reflection of the lack of stimulation provided by the major parties.

For all the marketing activity, if young people are to re-engage with the electoral process, it is up to politicians to demonstrate that there is something worth voting for.

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