Young targeted in battle against voter apathy

By on 07/01/2010 in Elections, Elections 2010, News

A campaign to get young people interested in politics is being launched by Birmingham City Council in the run-up to the General Election amid declining voter turnout nationally.

A range of projects are to be piloted in the New Year aimed at getting the city's young switched on to local politics.

These include getting schoolchildren to shadow Councillors as they go about fulfilling their role and getting Councillors to attend new Question Time-style events in schools.

Councillors have also answered three questions asking them why they became a Councillor, why they believe it is an important job and what skills they believe are needed for the job.

Official figures show that voter turn-out in General Elections has steadily declined since the end of the Second World War.

In 1945, 72.8 per cent of the voting population turned out on polling day, rising to a high of 83.9 in the following General Election of 1950 and then falling away to a low of 59.4 per cent in 2001. Turn out rose but only slightly to 61.4 per cent in the last General Election.

In Birmingham, voter turnout has been below average during the last three years and also appears to be declining, though a slight rise was seen last year, mirroring the national small increase.

Cllr John Hunt, Chair of Birmingham City Council's Children and Education Overview & Scrutiny Committee, said: “The evidence we have shows falling numbers of people voting and it is important we help people understand why it is important to vote.

“Young people are growing up in an atmosphere of cynicism towards politics at the moment due to the actions of some people.

“One of the views that young people have is that you only get involved in politics to pursue personal ambition. People need to see you get involved in politics because you can make a difference.

“Poltics is about making decisions that affect how the community operates. That requires people who understand how to use the political system so politics works for them and they feel they can take part.”

This month, 13 secondary schoolchildren will be paired with a city Councillor to shadow for a total of at least 25 hours attending meetings, Councillors' surgery sessions and other duties.

Two secondary schools - Primrose Hill and College High - are to hold Question Time discussions where pupils and their parents will be able to put questions to a panel that includes city Councillors.

Nick Anderson, Participation Co-ordinator within the council's Participation and Engagement Unit, said: “A lot of young people simply don't know how to engage with the political process.

“What we are trying to do is demystify it. Recently we had a group of children attend a Full Council meeting at the Council House and they found it really interesting. They felt part of it and they could see how they can influence things.

“Their aspirations increased just by attending one meeting. Projects like the Local Council Shadowing Programme can have a profound impact on young people in opening their eyes to politics and getting them engaged with the political process.

“Hopefully we can set the ball rolling here in Birmingham to address the decline in voter turnout nationally.”

Notes to Editors

• The 13 young people in Birmingham are part of 80 schoolchildren nationally taking part in the Local Councillor Shadowing Programme run by The Youth of Today - a consortium of leading youth organisations.

• Official figures show 64.7 per cent of the voting age public in Birmingham's ten constituencies turned out to vote in the 1997 General Election. That fell to 52 per cent in 2001 and rose slightly to 54.79 per cent in the last General Election of 2005 (see for statistics).

Responses from Councillors

Councillors were asked these three questions:

1) Why did you become a Councillor?

2) Why do you think it is an important job?

3) What skills do you need to be a Councillor?

Below are their responses.

Cllr Deirdre Alden

1) Because I wanted to make a difference. The first campaign I got involved with in Edgbaston was street prostitution which was then a big problem in parts of the ward. I heard some terrible stories of how local residents were suffering from the anti-social behaviour associated with this. It seemed so wrong, and I was determined to do.

2) Councils deliver a lot of services which are really important to people such as housing, highways, education, rubbish removal, dealing with litter etc. These are things which really matter to people and affect their everyday lives.

3) Communication, listening to people, be approachable. I also think one of the main skills is to be able to write a good letter. Very often people come to me with a problem and ask me to write to someone on their behalf.

 Cllr John Alden

1) I became a Councillor as I wanted to help improve the City in which I live.

2) It is important that people become involved with their community and not leave it to others.

3) There are no particular skills that you need to be a Councillor other than the desire to see the quality of life of our community improved.

Cllr David Osborne

1) I became a councillor after having represented my colleagues at work over 15 years as their union representative. I saw becoming a councillor as a natural progression from that with much wider interests and responsibilities.

2) It is important to offer yourself as a councillor because it is part of the democratic process without which there would be no recourse to justice in the issues that affect everyday life. Imagine life without them – with an elected mayor representing one million people all on his own!

3) You simply need to care. It is useful to be computer literate, be able to get on well with people (even those you can’t stand!), be willing to undertake training – otherwise officers will run rings round you – and be willing to commit a lot of your spare time to the job. Being a councillor involves personal sacrifice. You won’t make a fortune, your family life is often on hold and wherever you go people who recognise you as a Councillor will always want to tell you about their problems and ask your advice. Having said all that, getting elected to the council has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done and I wouldn’t swap it for anything else.

Cllr Keith Barton

1) It was a natural progression from my work as an activist.

2) The community must have a say in what goes on and people must be helped to get through all the bureaucracy involved in the Council.

3) People skills, after all you can be of little use if you can’t get elected.

Cllr Matt Bennett

1) Because I think I know better than everyone else (or at least that’s what my wife says)! To put it another way, I felt strongly about a number of issues and realised the best way to make a difference was to get involved.

2) The Council has an annual budget of £3 billion. That’s a lot of taxpayers’ money and it is vital that the way it is spent is overseen, scrutinised and challenged by people representing those taxpayers.

3) You’ve got to be prepared to question everything and be awkward and stubborn when the situation demands it. You need to have a good nose for bullsh*t and a thick skin. It helps too if you like spending lots of time outdoors and have a sturdy pair of boots.

 Cllr Roger Harmer

1) I decided to stand for election as a Councillor because I wanted to do something to make a difference in my City and not just complain and moan when things weren’t done the way I wanted.

2) I think it is important because the Council’s services are so important for many many people – even those who may not realise or only notice when things go wrong. Delivering high quality services can help improve lives, the environment and everyone’s future.

3) To be a good Councillor you need to remember you have two ears and one mouth and use them in that proportion. You need to get to understand the issues faced by all your residents and be prepared to work hard to help them overcome the problems they have. You need to be a good communicator and know which issues to prioritise, for you will never have enough time to do everything you could do. Above all you need to remember you are there to serve your residents and be their voice in the Council House.

Cllr Carl Rice

1) Politics is in my blood. Becoming a Councillor was a logical way of trying to put right what is wrong with Birmingham.

2) People need to be represented properly and democracy requires local Councillors. Without them democracy wouldn't focus at a local level.

3) Commitment, hard work, belief in an ideology and dedication to that ideology. Being able to write good letters and build relationships.

Cllr Ian Ward

1) As a member of the Labour Party, I was asked if I would consider becoming a candidate because of my interest in local issues and local government.

2) You are representing the community who elected you (I was elected to represent Shard End in 1995). As you become more involved and gain more responsibility in your Group it becomes about representing the people of the city with a corresponding budget which is greater than that of some countries!

3) Many! You need to be able to advocate for people, and to be persuasive. To recognise the need for compromise and be non-judgemental and demonstrate empathy. You need to be organised and have highly developed interpersonal skills. Ultimately you need to be a leader of the community you represent.

Cllr Sir Albert Bore

1) To make a change, to Birmingham and for the people of Birmingham.

2) Often people come to you because they do not know where else to turn for help. To be able to advise, console or assist people who are in need of help is an extremely important job.

3) A great many. A good Councillor will listen, delegate and respond to all enquiries made of them. In addition there are two things that make for a good city – vision and good leadership.

Cllr Mahmood Hussain

1) I was very heavily involved in the community on all sorts of issues so I decided I wanted to become a Councillor because I wanted to represent the people of the area at a higher level.

2) You are in a position to help disadvantaged people who cannot help themselves and also to help develop policies to improve the area.

3) Ought to have political know how and understand your Party’s policies and values. You also need to know how the local government system works.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.