Why should young people be interested in politics? By The Rt Hon. Andrew Smith MP for Oxford East
I’m grateful to the editors of newpoliticalcentre.com for giving me the opportunity to write on young people’s involvement in politics.
Perhaps I should start by saying what I think politics is, because looking at the daily news, it’s easy to get the wrong idea. At its root, politics isn’t just about international summits, the Westminster bubble or even what politicians do. Politics is the organisation of human beings in societies, and about who has the power to do what. Aristotle defined human beings as animals
that live in organised societies, and analysed a number of ways they can do so, good, bad and mixed. Since then the human race has been through many ways (many of them much worse ways) of organising itself; but even in our radically different global society, the fundamental truth remains the same. Our societies can be organised well or badly, from bottom up or from top down,
innovatively or with stagnation, but all these arrangements consist of political relationships between human beings, and all are susceptible to reorganisation by the people who make up the societies involved.
The big questions are who engages in politics and what for. We live in a democracy, not perhaps a perfect one, but a system giving us the potential to change our society peacefully. The end of politics should be people and the environment we share. People sometimes ask me what we can do about the supposed apathy of young people about political questions, and what we can do to get the new generation interested. Why shouldn’t young people be interested in something which so much affects so many aspects
of their lives? From tuition fees to votes at 16, politics affects young people and young people should have a voice.
That’s not all there is to say. I’m not one of those who patronisingly assumes that young people are only interested in “young people’s issues”. Citizens of the world like everyone else, they are also likely to be involved in it for longer than most politicians, and the state of the global economy and the future of the planet are the vital interest of everyone. If I had needed convincing of this the many school students who have written to me recently on a variety of political issues would have done it. Some did write on issues directly affecting them as school students or potential university applicants, but others on national and international
political issues, and others still on issues local to Oxford.
The generation leaving school at the moment faces a troubling world. The challenges of climate change, financial instability and inequality are ones that my generation has an obligation to begin to resolve, but the new generation will have to finish the job. The world of education and work young people are entering is a more uncertain one than has been the case since the end of the Second World War, with the Government questioning some of the foundation of our national settlement, such as the way the NHS is provided. Labour leader Ed Miliband has said that the “British Promise”, that each new generation will be that little bit better off than its predecessor, is at risk of being broken by this Government. If it is able to do everything it plans to, and the economic outlook does not improve, then we will have to find new ways to rebuild our NHS and other public services, and to build the innovative, high-tech, green economy that Britain needs to compete in today’s global market. This is a process in which today’s young people will inevitably be increasingly involved, at the level both of national and of local politics.
Local issues are also important because, returning to the rief definition with which I began, even the most local ideas and concerns are otentially political in that solving them requires political engagement. he safety of cycle lanes, late buses or dumping of rubbish at a particular spot affect people’s quality of life where they are, and if people are to focus on bigger issues it helps to be sorting out the problems close to home. Besides, if people don’t feel they can trust politicians to help them on these local everyday issues they can see outside their front doors, how can they trust us to make the right choices on the big issues? The MP who was
asked how she could stop the international arms race if she couldn’t stop people vandalising the lift in a local block of flats found that her constituent had a point.
Often it is from little issues, from small beginnings, that great political movements start. It is periodically said the politics is dead: from Hegel to Fukuyama clever people have pronounced it, if not actually moribund then at least well on the way out. Nobody who has seen the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, with millions of ordinary people attempting to take back control of their own future – with varying degrees of success but always with great courage and many lessons for the world and especially for politicians – can believe that now.
Politics is the organisation of societies, it should be for people, and it’s about our future – as people, as a country, as a City. Young people are our future and it is vitally important that young people get more and more involved. I congratulate this website in stimulating political engagement and debate, and wish you every success.