Dr Sioned Pearce, Politics, Young People, Young People and BREXIT

Young people and Brexit: long-term political engagement

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As part of the Young People and Brexit project, WISERD will be creating a series of short films with young people. In this blog, Dr Sioned Pearce discusses some of the questions that the films will be asking.

This week I sat on a debating panel to discuss young people and politics at the National Assembly for Wales’ Government and Politics conference. The conference brought over 100 sixth form and college students across Wales together to give their views on topical political issues including: votes at 16, a Welsh Youth Assembly, the role of the media in raising awareness of devolution and how best to engage young people in politics. Co-panellists were Professor Roger Scully of the Wales Governance Centre, Mared Ifan of Golwg, Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas and Hannah Blythyn AM.

The debate was lively with some tricky questions coming from the young audience, such as: should there be some sort of eligibility criteria for voting apart from age? Will lowering the voting age put safe council seats in Wales at risk of changing? Will we be debating lowering the voting age to 14 and 15 in ten years’ time? Also, is lowering the voting age a left wing power grab? Hilary Clinton’s ‘Pokémon pitch’ aimed at young people during the US presidential campaign was berated for being patronising, leading to discussion around the difference between ‘making politics engaging’ and ‘dumbing it down’ – a difficult balance for politicians to strike. Professor Scully followed with the excellent point that politics is not meant to be a form of entertainment and that often the most effective and important parts of it are seen as the dullest.

Many young people at the conference felt they had more interest in politics because of Brexit and had been more politically aware and active since 23rd June last year. However, recent surges in turnout among young people in the Scottish independence (75% of 16- and 17-year-olds) and the EU referendums (64% of 18- to 24-year-olds) have been atypical, as well as exceptionally divisive, binary and volatile. Because of this, academics are now raising concerns about the long-term effect of this surge on youth engagement in politics.

With this in mind, it is important to consider why we, and by ‘we’ I mean academics, politicians, civil society actors and engaged young people, want to engage more young people in politics? The quick answer is because turnout is the bedrock of democracy. The slightly longer one is that consistently low electoral turnout among young people in UK elections means less representation for young people within our democratic system and subsequently within our society. But both upholding democracy and ensuring youth representation in politics require long-term engagement to continue as young people grow up, and perhaps a respect for politics that goes deeper than the topical. The over 60s who view voting as a civic duty and who turnout and vote whether or not they agree with what political parties are saying, will not be around forever to maintain a steady turnout.

Research from our previous WISERD project Young People and the EU Referendum found the Millennial generation’s low engagement to be a ‘cohort effect’ meaning Millennials are likely to turnout in low numbers throughout their lives. Based on the young people attending the conference this week there are certainly exceptions to this finding, but can a particular political event, like Brexit, change the trend? And if so is it a lasting change? These are some of the questions we will be asking young people during our short film-making as part of the Young People and Brexit project this March.

If you are a young person interested in being involved in these short films, please get in touch by emailing pearces11@cardiff.ac.uk


Young People & Brexit is an interdisciplinary study of how young people in the UK feel about and are responding to the most significant policy issue of this Parliament: the UK’s exit from the European Union. For more information about the project please click here.

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