I’m a teenager, get me out of here
An 18-year-old ‘voter virgin’ is not impressed by the latest attempts to bring out the youth vote.
Local democracy came to town for children and young adults around the UK with the launch, on 4 October, of ‘I’m a Councillor Get Me Out of Here’ (1).
This scheme allows young people to cast votes for various members of their local council, and each week the councillors who don’t have enough votes will be out of the contest. The last councillor standing then becomes ‘youth champion’ for their borough. Although ‘I’m a Councillor…’ will not have the advantages of its celebrity counterpart, such as constant ITV coverage and the comedy duo of Ant and Dec, it is hoped that it will provide enough stimulus to get young people to learn the value of participating in a democracy.
To maintain the intellectual level of the competition, councillors are not asked to live in the forest and eat insects, but instead to post manifestos telling children what will be done to improve their local area. But judging by the efforts of Islington councillors, it is going to be more popular to ask kids what they think. Or as Councillor Lucy Watt puts it: ‘When I was a teenager I didn’t like people telling me what I wanted, so now that I’m an adult and a councillor – I want you to tell me!!’
As well as their manifesto we are provided with a profile of each councilor, with useful information such as their star sign and the actor or actress they think is sexiest. Councillor Lisa Spall talks about what riles her most about her fellow councillors: ‘How childish they can be!!!!!!!!!!!!’
To make the contest a truly interactive experience, young people are invited to grill the councillors on local issues in the Q&A section of the site. This provides an opportunity for a bit of political infighting; councillors can blame the other party for the shortcomings in public services that the children point out.
At present, there are several contributions, including one from the site moderator asking everyone if they are ready for the contest (one councillor complains that nobody told them anything about it), and another from somebody called ‘sweetie’ who wants to know why kids these days feel the need to use knives instead of fist fighting. One student asks ‘why do we have to read?’. Just to make sure that seething onlookers cannot send in streams of invective in response, we’re told that ‘I’m a Councillor… is for young people and only young people’. This means that everyone who lacks the youth to be a young adult enters the site as a ‘look but don’t touch’ guest visitor.
The Local Democracy Week website tells us that young people will be ‘driven’ to the ‘I’m A Councillor…’ site ‘by a comprehensive set of Local Democracy teaching materials’. The contribution that the scheme makes to citizenship education has already been praised by the school inspectors Ofsted. Not only are politicians trying to drag kids down to their level, they are doing it in schools where they have a captive, if not captivated, audience. The popularity of the site can therefore be understood in a similar way to the high sales of geography textbooks.
Forcing children to play at politics is not a healthy way to reignite interest in democracy. How can anyone take politics seriously if it is being deliberately likened to the jungle-based antics of Peter Andre and Christine Hamilton? Things only become embarrassing for young and old, councillor and constituent. Casting your vote in an election becomes just another reality TV show, only with a slightly bigger prize – becoming the prime minister.
There is a similar trend in America, with all manner of people trying to court the youth vote in all manner of unlikely ways. These are invariably apolitical (or as they say non-partisan) organisations; they do not want to persuade anyone one way or another, they just want to make sure you use your vote. Votervirgin.com (2) works on the premise that ‘creating a culture of FUN to promote democracy might just inspire Americans to vote in droves’. You can even send a pre-prepared message to your friend, inviting them to lose their voter-virginity.
A large celebrity contingent is also joining in the fun. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has launched ‘Smackdown Your Vote’ (3), using wrestlers to promote the democratic cause. This seems to have won the approval of the political establishment, as the website has photos of wrestling stars such as ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Ric Flair’ posing alongside several congressmen and senators. Musicians are also at it, rallying around the ‘Rock the Vote’ bus tour, at which you can go and see live bands and then register to vote (4). This is strongly affiliated with the MTV campaign ‘choose or lose’ (5), clearly showing the importance of getting involved in the elections.
Even rapper P Diddy has come up with an idea to combat voter apathy. This was given the support of none other than Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention who believes the slogan for his campaign, ‘vote or die’, ‘is accurate’ (6). Thankfully, it was not meant literally.
Organisations need to stop patronising young people with projects that they think are cool. If there is one thing politicians are truly terrible at, it is trying to understand and manipulate youth culture; while for celebrities, the same is true of politics. Politicians trying to engage young people might do better trying to make provocative and forward-thinking youth policy.
Otherwise we could end up with a newer and far more successful scheme being launched: ‘I’m the electorate get me out of here’ will see voters compete to avoid the embarrassment of joining in another pointless public consultation scheme or celebrity voting circus in which politics is trivialised.
Francis Boorman recently finished his A-levels and is currently working as a spiked intern.
(1) Local Democracy Week
(2) Voter Virgin
(3) Smackdown Your Vote
(4) Rock the Vote
(5) MTV: Choose or Lose
(6) Hillary Clinton Tells P. Diddy ‘Vote Or Die’ Slogan Hits Nail On The Head, MTV: Choose or Lose, 8 May 2004
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