The importance of knowledge in voting

In this blog, journalist Helen Whitehouse argues that younger people deserve better education in order to be informed voters.

The outcome of the EU referendum was nothing short of astounding, for me personally and for many others in my position. Although for months now we’ve been primed for the possibility of the decision to exit the EU, I wasn’t sure I believed it would happen and was shocked on Friday morning when I woke up to the news.

More alarmingly for me as a young person, my town in Barnsley had a 70/30 split towards Leave, one of the highest in the country. Fundamentally, I don’t think this is surprising. Barnsley is a town in the Labour heartlands, an ex-mining area which lost its industry and seems to be stuck in a cycle of housing crisis joblessness and a bit of a lack of hope. The Northern Powerhouse hasn’t materialised, and no-one saw much of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the campaign.

How does this reflect on the next generation of young voters? For Barnsley, I understand the young demographic to be different to the rest of the country. It isn’t a university town, meaning the young voters were probably workers, or at college. I know a lot of people I spoke to claimed to vote Leave because their parents told them to. But does anyone have any idea what leaving the EU actually means?

Plenty of people in difficult situations saw this as an opportunity for change and we can all understand that desire. But we also all saw the articles the next day detailing how people regretted their decision to vote to Leave – that it was just a protest vote or they didn’t really understand what they were crossing the box for.

I can’t help but wonder whether the outcome would be different if it had been decided to give 16 year olds the vote. But I think a fundamental issue to come out of the referendum should be this: why are we asking young people to vote on an issue they have absolutely no idea about? That isn’t me claiming young people shouldn’t have the vote, or anyone over the age of 24 has a comprehensive knowledge of the EU. But for these young people, it’s unforgivable there wasn’t any kind of useful information, aside from rhetoric battered back and forth, to tell people what would happen if they voted to stay and what would happen if they voted to leave.

I find it astounding that for both the referendum, and the general election last year, there appeared to be a push to get voters on the electoral register and mobilise the younger generation. Yet, there is never an attitude of education to inform young people of what they are voting for. Yes, voter turnout amongst young people might be higher than usual; but we know no-one really knew what the EU meant to any of us, even the most politically engaged young person.

The young generation are passionate and care about the world they are growing up in. If they were given education on the practical side of politics and what everything means on a fundamental day-to-day level, it would be far easier to get them voting. But this can’t be something done overnight, or six months before the election. It needs to be started now for the next time we have a referendum, the general election in 2020. Instead of half-hearted PHSCE lessons, get some “non-political” politics lessons in there, talking about issues that will inevitably come up in the future such as housing, employment and healthcare.

I worry for the young people of my home town voting because of what their parents tell them to do, casting a ballot when they don’t understand it and, like so many others in the country, googling what it means afterwards. Young people will engage in voting, but we need to give them the tools to do so before the event. Nothing was done for last year’s general election or for the EU referendum but we do know where the problem lies. Hopefully the issue can be solved before the next time, and young people won’t have to ask their parents how to vote.

Helen Whitehouse

Helen Whitehouse

Whitehouse is a journalist and has written for the Guardian, the Mirror and the Daily Star
Helen Whitehouse
Helen Whitehouse

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