Why can’t they just register to vote on time?
That was the complaint on social media when the voter registration website for the EU referendum crashed partly due to the weight of last-minute registration.
And figures would indicate that the bulk of that late surge was from so-called millennials. People born in the mid to late 1990s – don’t worry, it makes me feel old as well – who are now engaging with formal politics for the first time.
In one of the other big myths of UK politics, this generation are often unfairly characterised as a lazy and apathetic when it comes to civic engagement. ‘Slacktivists’ with more interest in Big Brother than big politics. For many of them the machinations in Westminster must seem a world away from their daily cares and worries.
But research from a variety of sources indicates exactly the opposite of this. Our young people are increasingly political – just not in the ways in which older generations define it.
They also drink, smoke and get pregnant less often, don’t commit as much crime and care more for other generations. In fact you could argue that young people have more of a sense of civic duty than ever before – but this isn’t a statement you’ll see repeated in mainstream media.
But back to voter registrations. It struck me that one reason behind the sudden late rush by those aged 18-24 might be related to the consumerisation of politics.
The theory goes like this, since the dawn of the television age in the early 1960s, politicians and ideas have been ‘sold’ to an increasingly cynical public. This began in the US, and has accelerated over recent years, with some citing Saatchi and Saatchi’s advice to the Conservatives and the famous ‘Britain Isn’t Working’ poster as a key moment this side of the pond.
Meanwhile at the same time, a growing consumerisation across the developed world, means we now expect ideas to be sold in the same way that brands sell stuff to us.
People used to vote along family lines, but now we approach voting like we approach buying a washing machine – weighing up the options before choosing the party – or brand – that best matches our current needs and our future aspirations.
So people, particularly young people who have grown up during the last twenty years in an increasingly digital environment, are more likely to have a different relationship with politics and the state. For them, politics is a transaction, a service provided and to be consumed.
Therefore, it should be ready to use when they are and it should operate in a mechanism and language that they understand.
Just for fun, here’s a short piece of YouTube video showing the state opening of parliament. If it looks outdated and arcane to you, imagine what it must look like to someone born before Tony Blair became Prime Minister.
Now, can you imagine how outmoded and old-fashioned our existing ‘cross in the box’ system must seem to people who have never voted before. To people who engage with the world through a smart phone and social media?
So next time you hear commentators decrying lack of engagement, think about it carefully. The fault may be with an outdated establishment, rather than our young people.