The fossilisation of Rock The Vote
Youth turnout campaigns have been virtually wound up because they no longer trust that young people will vote ‘sensibly’.
There has always been a contradiction at the heart of campaigns to get young people to participate in elections. On the one hand they claim that young people should be taken seriously, but on the other hand they patronisingly broadcast their messages with the help of celebrities, silly slogans and funky fonts. In this year’s General Election, however, campaigns like Rock The Vote – which urges young people to ‘get involved and ensure that politicians are not spinning you a line at election time’ – have had a conspicuously low profile. In fact, the people behind the campaign seem to have given up.
The biggest news splash Rock The Vote UK has made in recent months was when the original, American Rock The Vote campaign accused it of using its name illegally. Today, just one day before Britain goes to the polls, the campaign’s website welcomes visitors to the ‘new and improved Rock The Vote’… but the site contains little more than grammatical errors, blurry images and boring news alerts, such as: ‘Chartered Institute of Personnel Development analyses the three parties.’
Only a few months ago, Rock The Vote UK promised to offer ‘a variety of ways to engage and incite young people to vote’ by using ‘music, popular culture and technologies’. Now it seems to have simply abandoned its own mission.
Has Rock The Vote been struck by disillusionment? Has it succumbed to its own view of young people as apathetic, lazy and uninterested in the world? This, after all, is the underlying assumption of campaigns that believe young people need to be coaxed into political engagement with whatever social networking tools, pop videos and rock concerts necessary.
Although Rock The Vote is not tied to any political party, aiming simply to help young people make informed decisions, youth engagement campaigns often have a left-leaning flavour. ‘Conservative’ is not often a trait associated with young people and, in the UK, Labour (or possibly the Lib Dems) has long been assumed to be the party of the young.
Back in 1997, when a grinning Tony Blair rode to power on the promise of a bright future where there was no room for old, out-of-touchy-feely, grey-suited establishment Tories, a young person voting Conservative was seen as an anomaly.
But the days of Cool Britannia are long gone. And after a War on Terror, regular hikes in tuition fees and the expansion of the database state, a vote for Labour is certainly not a given among young people.
Now, since the explosion of the media-led Cleggmania, the Lib Dem leader has put himself forward as the fresh-faced hope for change. In the run-up to the voter registration deadline, Clegg tried to mimic Barack Obama, who urged young Americans not to waste their vote and to join his campaign. His message was that this election is a chance for young people to make a difference.
New Labour has always been keen on campaigns to get young people to vote but, as it has lost its grip on the young, the party has abandoned them. All this shows that our political leaders are primarily interested in young people as political props, as markers of self-validation.
Rock The Vote talks up the young as the future, the great hope for democracy. But, as the patronising tone of the campaign suggests, this was never about respecting young people’s intelligence – it was always a desperate attempt to give a certain kind of politics legitimacy.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
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